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Saudi Diplomat Hides Behind Immunity To Avoid Consequences of Abuse of Maids

Posted: September 18, 2015
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The Saudi Diplomat finally leaves the country after the incident of abuse of the maids. What does it tell us about our domestic workers? 

By this time, I am sure you have seen reports of the Saudi Arabian diplomat who has been accused of holding two Nepali domestic workers hostage, abusing and sexually assaulting them.  Not surprisingly, the diplomat denies the accusations and has been allowed to leave the country, after the Saudi government refused to waive his immunity. This case lies at the intersection of diplomatic immunity and its misuse, illegal trafficking of women and plight of domestic workers. The women were rescued when another domestic helper who was new ran away after three days. She approached a nonprofit, Maiti Nepal, which smuggled a phone to the remaining two women and informed the Ministry of External Affairs. The Ministry informed the police, who conducted the raid but with much resistance from the family.

The police are investigating the case and will submit a report to the Ministry of External Affairs, owing to a diplomat’s involvement. The next step would have been for the Ministry to take action. But even as they have requested cooperation from the Saudi Embassy, the diplomat has been recalled to his home country instead of his immunity being waived. The diplomat continues to remain unnamed while additional allegations of harassment have emerged against his wife and daughter, who were allegedly beating the Nepali woman while the rescue team was outside to rescue them. All of this should be shocking, but it is not because such stories are repeated countless times every day.

Diplomatic immunity gives diplomats a waiver from lawsuits and prosecution in their host country.

Diplomatic immunity gives diplomats a waiver from lawsuits and prosecution in their host country. It was developed as international law in the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations in 1961, although it has a much longer historical presence. Misuse of diplomatic immunity is not unknown but very few cases make headlines. The case of Devyani Khobragade, an Indian Foreign Service officer who was arrested when serving as Indian Deputy Consul General in New York for various charges of abuse and harassment against her domestic help, was one such exception.  There are many aspects at play here, but one of the most troublesome threads in both cases is that immunity allows for a complete lack of accountability and consequences. A country can request for a waiver of immunity and if that is not granted, expel the diplomat but this is done very rarely.

Nepal is one of the world’s poorest countries and thousands of men and women migrate each year in search of job opportunities including as laborers and domestic workers. The earthquake earlier this year made the situation precarious and led to even more trafficking of people for sex work and labor. These two women were also lured to India with promises of earning more money than they would make in Nepal by a recruiting agent. Once they arrived, they found themselves trapped in the diplomat’s house and without any recourse. This is a situation that several domestic workers and laborers often find themselves in after arriving in a new country.

Domestic workers in India typically work long hours, without breaks or holidays and are paid less than minimum wage and don’t have any benefits. Issues of class and caste also position domestic workers as ‘inferior’. From a societal perspective, this continuous othering of domestic workers often leads to employers not treating them as human beings and individuals. From a legal perspective, employment laws don’t protect domestic workers in India, an estimated 4 million people working as maids, cooks, gardeners and more. Some states such as Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu have introduced steps to protect domestic workers while others have established minimum wages.

But both the laws and attitudes lag centuries behind the miserable plight of workers in India.

But both the laws and attitudes lag centuries behind the miserable plight of workers in India. Both need to change – only implementing laws will not be of much use. While making child labor illegal has helped, it has in no way led to a complete resolution and we still see children working as domestic help and vendors and more. This is often driven by a desperate need for survival and the same is true for domestic workers – who are often uneducated and poor women.

In this particular case, one hoped that the police were allowed to continue the investigation and the Ministry would press for the accused to face consequences of their actions. Too often in the past we have seen such cases fizzle, with the victims continuing to suffer and see no justice and this has repeated itself once again showing how diplomatic immunity is rampantly misused.

Overall, while laws focusing on minimum wages and regulating working hours are a step in the right direction, it will be hard to implement them till the employers, who are typically the middle and upper class in India start to change how they see and treat their domestic workers and make an effort to understand the complex interaction of caste, gender, wealth and privilege that have enabled this toxic environment.

Cover image via Shutterstock

I think of myself as a feminist development practitioner with a strong interest in issues

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