Who is Sangeeta Richards Anyway? The Long and Short of the Khobragade Affair

Who is Sangeeta Richards Anyway? The Long and Short of the Khobragade Affair

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Perhaps no one needs the kind of notoriety that has been heaped on Ms. Devyani Khobragade. After a month of worldwide publicity and causing a near breakdown of relationships between two of the oldest democracies in the world, the one-time Deputy Consul General for India has returned home.

No one is feeling happy yet, but at least the immediate crisis is over.

I was in India when Khobragade – who in December was forced to leave the U.S. amid allegations she obtained a fraudulent work visa for her housekeeper, who she then paid $3.31 an hour – was arrested in NYC. As the “nanny-gate” hit all media headlines in India, people around me exploded in violent outrage at the “deliberate” affront to India as a nation and Khobragade, as a person.

People raged about the United States’ double standards and tendency to bully other nations. Even though the sequence of events was not always clear to everyone, most were convinced that Khobragade had been singled out for the degradation of a “strip-search.” They talked about how unreasonable it is to pay a domestic worker the “exorbitantly” high salary that the U.S. requires and denigrated the “nanny” as a scheming malingerer, who is taking advantage of American gullibility.

While I agree that a “strip search” is a horrible thing to put any human being through, the demand for differential handling of a person because they are in a high position left me unmoved. Ultimately, the disagreements got so painful that I stopped discussing the topic at all.

The media, politicians, and lay people in both India and the U.S. have focused on Khobragade and pontificated on the differences in life-style practices of the two countries, and various other legal and moral details. Sangeeta Richards, the nanny/domestic worker at the center of the storm, quickly became invisible in the melee. To my knowledge, she has surfaced only a few times in print media, mostly in articles written by social change activists. After all this time, we are left wondering who this Sangeeta Richards is!

Who is Ms. Richards anyway – an overworked and underpaid Indian nanny and domestic worker? If so, what’s new? For many, she remains a shadowy figure who has stirred a hornet’s nest. Yet, we have received an extremely important piece of information about Richards – she has resisted her exploitation. And to do so, she has taken enormous risks. She has had to leave her country, her home, her friends, and the larger network of relatives. The magnitude of this sacrifice can only be understood by someone who has had to migrate under duress. Richards has stood up for her rights as a worker under very trying circumstances, as very few of us might dared to have done.

Richards completed her act of defiance in New York City. New York State was the first in the U.S. to pass the bill of rights of domestic workers; an acknowledgement that accepts these private laborers in the ranks of formal workers, in particular gendered workers, and protects their labor rights. The law guarantees domestic workers minimum wage, time to rest, and freedom from sexual and racial harassment. Other U.S. states such as Hawaii and California have followed New York in this recognition. But was Richards overstepping her position as an Indian domestic worker in an Indian home to seek equal rights that her American counterparts might enjoy in NYC?

Gharelu Kaamgar Sanghathan (GKS), a domestic workers’ rights group, is perhaps the only organization in India that has weighed in on the issue of labor exploitation. According to Anannya Bhattacharjee, who founded Sakhi for South Asian Women in NYC and now heads GKS in New Delhi, the rampant anger against Ms. Richards in India is reflective of the low value placed on domestic workers.

Although large numbers of households in India depend on their work, domestic workers are given little worth and are considered fungible. They receive extremely low pay, no steady vacation or rest day, and enjoy no job security. Their right to organize as labor is also non-existent.

Devyani Khobragade’s farewell statement to the U.S. official who came to the airport to bid her goodbye is representative of the average Indian employer’s attitude toward domestic workers: “You have lost a good friend. It is unfortunate. In return you got a maid and a drunken driver. They are in, and we are out.”

GKS has demanded that the Indian Government recognize the labor rights of domestic workers and ratify the ILO (International Labor Organization) Convention 189, Domestic Workers’ Convention 2011. The treaty came into effect in September and grants domestic workers the same rights as other workers. There are an estimated 53 million domestic workers worldwide, 83 percent of whom are women.

Sangeeta Richards has stood up against society’s callousness and demanded to be counted. She has asked for justice, fairness, and her human rights. In our preoccupation with Ms. Khobragade’s wrongs and rights, let us not forget about a brave worker who refuses to be erased.

Shamita Das Dasgupta is a New Jersey-based Indian American scholar, activist, wife and mother. A social activist since the early 1970s, she co-founded Manavi, a support group for South Asian victims of domestic violence in 1985. Manavi participated in the successful campaign for the passage of the New York Domestic Workers Bill of Rights.