Why Congress tightened the law on foreign diplomats hiring staff

A 'delicate balancing act' for the State Department in overseeing the treatment of staff at foreign missions in the US. 

Rajanish Kakade/AP
Devyani Khobragade, center, in Mumbai, India, on March 12, 2014, Ms. Khobragade, then deputy consul general for India in New York, was arrested in 2013 on charges of fraudulently obtaining a work visa for her housekeeper and lying about the employee’s pay.

The US State Department oversees the issuance of visas to household workers accompanying diplomats and employees of international organizations. In recent years, it has taken steps to protect these workers from abuse, though anti-trafficking advocates say there’s still more it can do.

In a 2008 revision to the law protecting trafficking victims, Congress bolstered the contract requirements that foreign employers must follow when hiring domestic workers. And if workers complain about not getting paid properly, the State Department will request proof of payment with reference to the contract.

One long-awaited step took place in October 2015: The State Department launched a yearly in-person registration of these domestic workers, to better ensure they understand their rights. It currently covers only diplomatic employees in the Washington, D.C., area, but will eventually expand, says a department spokesperson.

US law also directs the secretary of State to suspend countries and international organizations from the visa programs for domestic workers if there is credible evidence of exploitation by an employee. The secretary can decline to suspend if steps are in place to ensure such abuses don’t reoccur.

To date, no foreign mission has been sanctioned. Activists say the US is reluctant to rebuke major countries whose diplomats are cited.

In the case of Devyani Khobragade, an Indian envoy posted to New York, there was a diplomatic spat after her arrest in 2013 on charges of visa fraud and false statements regarding pay and conditions for her nanny/housekeeper. Amid uproar in India, Ms. Khobragade was able to leave the US, but the charges await her if she returns.

India retaliated for her arrest by removing concrete barriers in front of the US embassy in New Delhi and expelling a US diplomat who had assisted the nanny’s family in obtaining US visas. 

“There’s a delicate balancing act … for the State Department, which I understand. But it also has a vested interest in promoting the values of protecting human rights,” says Ivy Suriyopas, a lawyer who has represented domestic workers in civil lawsuits.

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