Slavery, the diplomatic way
The news from Washington for our indestructible and forever-in-power feudal lords and masters is good: they are not alone. Their beloved institution of slavery is alive and well in the capital of the United States of America despite Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation over 140 years ago. What is more, it exists under the benign eye of the Department of State which oversees the diplomatic missions based here.
The slaves are the domestic servants that diplomats from Third World countries bring to America under host country agreements. Every condition that they have agreed to abide by as employers is violated with utter contempt for local laws and customs. The worst offenders are diplomats from Arab countries and India and Pakistan. Some years ago, Human Rights Watch issued a scathing report on treatment of domestic servants by diplomats, but what do those who have only contempt for people they consider no better than a sub-species, have for such reports! The abuse of domestic servants continues and there is little that the host country seems willing to do. Were it to expel some of these criminals, since that is what they are, for conduct unbecoming, it may perhaps improve the situation. However, the only time a diplomat gets thrown out is when he is caught spying. Spies, one should add, embedded in South Asian embassies spend the better part of their assignment spying on either their colleagues or their fellow countrymen. I base this observation on direct, first-hand experience stretched over many years.
More than 4,000 domestics enter the United States every year, brought in under a programme designed for the benefit of diplomats and those working for international organisations, including the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. The employers undertake to pay them the minimum wage – which is $5.15 an hour – as well as respect US labour laws and living standards. That means that a Pakistani working for the embassy, the Bank, the Fund or the UN whose servant is made to work 10 hours a day should pay him or her Rs. 91,000 a month. A servant who works 12 hours a day should be paid Rs 109,000 and a servant who works 14 hours a day Rs 127,000. The majority of servants are made to toil for between 12 and 14 hours. What they get in return from even the more generous of employers is actually no more than a couple of hundred dollars – paid in rupees in Pakistan to their families, though often not – and perhaps a couple of days off in the month.
But this would be the exception, not the norm. Most of the servants are not paid what they were promised. They also have to suffer tongue lashing from the Begum and ordering about by the children. They are the first to rise and the last to go to bed. They are made to scrub floors, cook, wash dishes, wash and iron clothes, cater for parties, dust the house, buff up the car and run errands. Their passport is kept by the employer and they have little money to spend on themselves. No wonder many of them run off, risking arrest by the police since once they leave the employment of the person who brought them in, they become illegals. This is how the dreams of most of these poor people end in a foreign land.
Last week, yet another story of the brutalisation of a domestic servant was brought to light in a letter written to the Washington Post by Len Lekflow, a former American diplomat. It is the story of Rita. She was brought here from India by an Asian diplomat (read Indian). She was made to work 16 to 18 hours a day, seven days a week. “Madam” would scream at her and once she got beaten because she wanted to take two hours off to go to a church picnic. She was called names ( kutya), not allowed to use the phone, was once locked outside during winter and often threatened with deportation. Once when she fell ill, she was given no treatment and, in fact, told that she would be sent home (as you retire a work animal who goes lame or falls sick). For all her work, her family in India was paid just $100 and in the end the princely sum of $700. In other words, instead of being paid the US wage of $5.15 an hour, she received just 18 cents. Rita left and is now being helped by her church and some good people who took pity on her.
About twenty years ago in Washington, I met a Pathan woman at the late S.N. Qutb’s home who told me a story no different than Rita’s. She was brought over by a Pakistani diplomat – who had a great career subsequently – along with her 17-year old son, promised generous wages for herself and a job for her son at the embassy. Once here, the son was ordered to assist his mother. Their day began before sunrise and would not often end until midnight. There were no off days and they were paid $100 a month. The son’s airfare was deducted in installments from the salary, all $600 of it. There were tongue lashings and threats, especially from the “lady wife” (who also was to do very well for herself in later years).
Everyone has a breaking point and for the mother and son it came one night when after another tongue lashing from the Begum, they decided that they couldn’t take it any more. They were made to leave without the few possessions they had, which included, the woman told me between sobs, things she had bought for her daughter’s dowry. Their passports were also kept. They were taken in by a kind Pakistani, a working man himself who advised them to go to the police, but they did not do so because “that would have brought a bad name to our country.” I found it ironic that the poor, rootless woman had more respect for her country and its good name than her exalted employers. I do not know what happened to her or her son.
Perhaps the Ministry of Foreign Affairs would take a short break from running the world and set its own house in order first.