'US may be violating own laws on wages for its Indian staff'

'US may be violating own laws on wages for its Indian staff'

'US may be violating own laws on wages for its Indian staff'

The US embassy and its consulates may be in violation of their own laws concerning the wages paid to the Indian staff employed by these missions as well as by individual diplomats, informed sources said here today.

Keeping up the pressure on the US, a special group set up in the External Affairs Ministry will meet here tomorrow to scrutinise the available information regarding the wages being paid to their Indian staff amid indications that these may be violative of the laws.

US embassy and its consulates are still dragging their feet in furnishing to the government the details it has sought about the number of Indian staff employed both in the diplomatic mission and also at the residences by their diplomats. The details sought include the wages paid as well as the tax details.

The deadline to provide such information was December 23 but according to the Ministry of External Affairs no information has been provided as yet. It is understood that the US Embassy has cited Christmas and New Year holidays as the reason for the delay.

The government's action is a fallout of the arrest and strip-search of Deputy Consul General Devyani Khobragade, who was arrested in New York on visa fraud charges.

Enforcing strict reciprocity, Indian government has withdrawn extra privilges enjoyed by American Ambassador Nancy Powell and other diplomats such as special access at Indian airports.

While the government is awaiting American response, information available indicates that Indian staff like cooks and drivers were being paid between Rs 12000-15000 which is equivalent to USD 200-250, way below the minimum wage of USD 9.47 per hour applicable in New York or in any other US city.

Thus, American diplomats would be in violation of US law of minimum wages since their residences as well as the embassy and consulates are treated as American territory.

Even if they provide legal justifications and claim exemption from US laws for the salaries being paid to Indian employees, the public disclosure of such payment practices by US Embassy and diplomats in their personal capacities is likely to deeply embarrass the US.

The US insists on high hourly wages for Indian diplomats employing maids but pays much lower salaries to Indians being employed by its own Embassy and diplomats in India for similar work. There was no immediate response from the US Embassy when contacted by PTI.

The government's reaction to set up the special group, comprising inter-divisonal experts, including from legal, financial and human resources departments of MEA, to assess and monitor the inputs sought by the governments came after Khobragade, the 39-year-old 1999-batch IFS officer, was arrested in New York on December 12.

Khobragade is accused of making false declarations in a visa application for her maid Sangeeta Richard. The diplomat's arrest and subsequent treatment had sparked an outrage in India which demanded an apology and dropping of all charges against her. 

There are also reports that the commercial facilities run by American Community Support Association (ACSA), including a beauty salon and other full-scale commercial facilities hosted by the US Embassy within its compound which include the sale and service establishment, were open not only to US diplomats from third countries but to non-diplomatic personnel as well.

"This is a misuse of diplomatic privilege that is not extended by the US to others in their country," sources said.

There is a view in the government that the US diplomats at the Embassy in New Delhi and in their Consulates in other cities in India have always enjoyed a high degree of non-reciprocal privileges and facilitation.

These include tax-free treatment of their nationals working in the American Embassy School in New Delhi, extra privileges and immunities for their consulate officials at their consulates in Calcutta, Mumbai, Chennai and Hyderabad, approvals for extra staffing, including the deputation of short-term 'extra staff' for deployment in the embassy which are usually extended repeatedly and become regular one to two year postings effectively.

The sources also observed that the US has been ignoring the principle of reciprocity on privileges such as special traffic measures, including dedicated parking spaces and jersey barriers on roads adjacent to the Embassy. In contrast, the US authorities opened the parking in front of the Indian Embassy in Washington DC to general public and has refused to reinstate it despite repeated requests.

"The US action has forced India to review these privileges to bring them strictly in line with reciprocity, the cornerstone of diplomatic ties. Special traffic measures enjoyed by US Embassy in New Delhi have been revoked... Restrictions have been imposed on tax-free shipments being brought in by the US Embassy," the sources said.

"Strict reciprocity is being applied in terms of airports access and privileges for US Embassy and officials," the sources added.

The government is also unhappy with the unwillingness of the US to repatriate the India Based Domestic Assistants to India as required under the terms of employment contract as required by US laws which it terms as "inexplicable".

The sources said, "The government repeatedly sought the help of the US authorities to locate and repatriate her (Sangeeta) to India; instead of fulfilling its obligations by repatriating her, the US Government on the contrary, 'evacuated' the entire Richard family from India by presumptively issuing them 'T visas' which are issued to next of kin of victims of human trafficking."

Rather than being a case of human trafficking, the whole episode can only be seen as a "conspiracy by Ms. Richard and her family to subvert and misuse the US immigration laws to gain residency in the US, with the assistance of some NGOs and US authorities.

"They were able to execute this conspiracy in active collusion with the US officials posted in the US Embassy in New Delhi, the State Department and the Department of Justice," the sources said.