No sick leave, $1 per hour for maid in US-India row: court papers

NEW DELHI (REUTERS) - An Indian diplomat accused of visa fraud and lying about underpaying her maid coached the nanny to mislead US officials, confiscated her passport and made her work 100-hour, seven-day weeks, according to a US grand jury indictment.

Devyani Khobragade, who was India's deputy consul-general in New York, was effectively expelled from the United States on Thursday as part of a deal in which she was granted diplomatic immunity from the charges.

US court indictment papers, published on the website of the US attorney's office of the Southern District of New York, painted a picture of a maid refused sick days and holidays while working for a salary of little over US$1 (S$1.30) an hour in New York, or about one-seventh the minimum wage.

Khobragade's arrest set off protests in India after disclosures that she was handcuffed and strip-searched. The dispute soured US-India ties, leading to sanctions against American diplomats in New Delhi and the postponement of visits to India by senior US officials.

Khobragade denies all charges and has been backed by the Indian government. Khobragade's lawyer Daniel Arshack said on Thursday she would leave with her head "held high".

"She knows she has done no wrong and she looks forward to assuring that the truth is known," he said in a statement.

The indictment underscored the wildly divergent stories from both sides.

The diplomat's relatives and government officials say the allegations are exaggerated and are being used by the maid, Ms Sangeeta Richard, to get compensation or US residency.

Many Indian commentators said Ms Richard had a relatively comfortable life, with full board and lodging, free cable TV and medical care. They say it is misleading to calculate weekly working hours for live-in staff.

Mr Uttam Khobragade, the diplomat's father, said Ms Richard lived a luxurious life, that she went to the beauty parlour every alternate week, and purchased an iPhone.

"Does even Nancy Powell's maid servant have such luxuries?" he said to Reuters, referring to the US ambassador to India. "She was having a gala time there."

The indictment said that Khobragade first made the maid sign a contract that stipulated she would be paid around US$9.75 an hour. Khobragade told US officials in the visa application that the maid would be paid US$4,500 a month.

But on the evening of flying from India to the United States, Ms Richard was called to Khobragade's house in Delhi.

She was told she needed to sign a second work contract, with a changed maximum salary, including overtime, of 30,000 Indian rupees (S$614) a month, an illegally low amount under US minimum-wage laws.

Provisions about holidays and sick days were deleted from the contract. The indictment says that the actual hourly wage for the maid, given she was often working more than 100 hours a week, was a little over a US$1 an hour.

On one occasion, Khobragade told the maid not to get sick because it was too expensive, the papers say.

On arrival in the United States, the diplomat took the maid's passport and never returned it, saying it would only be returned at the end of her three-year contract, according to the court papers.

However, Khobragade in October filed a court case in India against Ms Richard claiming she fled with a government passport.

The case has shone a light on US efforts to investigate and prosecute allegations of abuse of foreign employees of diplomats and consular workers after the strengthening in 2008 of the law that protects such employees brought to the United States.

But some Indian commentators say they suspect many abuse allegations have been encouraged by the law and are trumped up charges by domestic workers.

"The US is a highly litigious country where suing people is a sort of favourite pastime," said Mr Prabhu Dayal, a former Indian consul general in New York, who in 2011 settled a case out of court after accusations he mistreated a domestic worker.

Writing in the Indian newspaper Mail Today, he said the beefed-up law encouraged consulate staff like domestic helpers to complain of mistreatment in order to claim to be a trafficking victim, which in turn could lead to US residency.

Safe Horizon, an organisation that helps victims of abuse, said Ms Richard was likely to apply for a special "T-1" visa for trafficking victims. Such a visa would be valid for up to four years and allow her to work in the United States. It can also lead to lawful permanent residence.

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