The US is right that when Khobragade applied for her visa, she falsely stated her maid would be paid the minimum US wage of $7.25 an hour. But Satyabrata Pal, former Indian ambassador to Pakistan, writes in the daily newspaper The Hindu: “Every Indian diplomat in the US has told the same lie, because none of them can afford to pay the local minimum wage when their own pay, even with foreign allowance, is barely more than that.”
US authorities know this because the bank account of Indian diplomats posted there is easily accessible to them. If they issue visas nevertheless, the American government is complicit in the lie, says Pal.
Plus, no matter what an Indian diplomat earns, the rupee-dollar exchange rate means their earnings – and consequently what they pay their helps – will appear meagre in dollar terms.
The dollar figure is meaningless because in reality an Indian maid working for an Indian diplomat in the US enjoys a standard of living far above Americans living on the minimum wage.
According to the Russell Sage Foundation, an independent research institute, 40 per cent of American workers in apparel, textile and repair services are paid less than the minimum wage. Worse, 41 per cent of minimum wage violations in the US are against maids and housekeepers.
Not only is there a vested interest in keeping wages low, but because the vast majority affected by these slave wages belong to Hispanic and black communities, there is no tearing hurry to enact fair laws. Racial discrimination is thus one of the main causes of low wages in the US.
At any rate, the minimum wage law which the US is throwing at Khobragade is actually a starvation wage in most American cities. Currently there are more than 50 million Americans facing hunger daily. Many of them starve to death, and local coroners routinely list their deaths as “natural causes”. The US has literally thrown these millions on the street.
Richard, on the other hand, lived within the well-furnished and warm ambience of a New York home rented by the Indian government. As the maid of an Indian diplomat she had none of the expenses that come into play while calculating the minimum wage.
She was living in her own private room in Khobragade’s home, with the Indian government taking care of all her expenses such as food, clothing, medical bills and transport. So whatever the maid earned was hers to keep.
Clearly, the US had no case against Khobragade.
The most shocking revelation that has come spinning out of the Khobragade scandal is the myriad of entitlements, privileges and immunities that Western – especially American – diplomats enjoy in India. These unilateral benefits were extracted from India as a quid pro quo for assisting the country during the 1962 China War. In return Indian diplomats get squat.
In a bid to appear tough – before the general elections next year – the usually feckless Congress government has been forced to suspend these privileges. Whether these privileges are quietly restored is anybody’s guess.
The best way to stop the US’ bullying is to offer a reciprocal approach. Bharat Karnad, a leading Indian strategic writer, says India should have immediately retaliated by publicly arresting American diplomats in Mumbai, Chennai, Hyderabad and Kolkata, and subjecting them to a “proper cavity search by rough hewn cops”.
India can also require, Karnad adds, that the large horde of Indians employed by the US embassy and consulates be paid salaries at the US level, which will raise the wage-bill manifold. And, besides imposing curbs on US diplomats, several multi-billion dollar arms deals in the pipeline should be frozen.
The American political leadership largely comprises British descendants, who are a nation of shopkeepers. Cancelling a few big-ticket business deals should quickly bring these mercenaries to their senses.