The Indian diplomat and her nanny: why consistency is crucial

Why the personal and the political have to be united (originally published January 2014 and re-published as a tribute to Rick Cohen who died earlier this week).

Rick Cohen
21 November 2015

Credit: Reuters/Shannon Stapleton. All rights reserved

When Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade arrived at her daughters’ school on West 97th Street in Manhattan on December 12th last year, she expected to drop off her children as usual for the day. Instead, she was picked up by agents from the US Department of State's Diplomatic Security Service, and then arrested, strip-searched and charged with visa fraud  relating to Sangeeta Richard, who worked as Khobragade’s nanny – illegally as it turned out in terms of both her papers and  her pay.

Richard worked a hundred hours a week for the equivalent of $1.43 an hour, way below any “legally sufficient wage” in the USA. This led to accusations of exploitation and abuse by campaigners for domestic workers’ rights. The arrest sparked a full-blown row between India and the United States which ended with Khobragade’s effective expulsion from the country under the cover of partial diplomatic immunity on January 9th.  

This part of the story is already well-known, but less well-known is the fact that Khobragade herself comes from a family of Dalits (once called “untouchables”). In India she is regarded as an advocate for the rights of both Dalits and women, and for an end to human trafficking. As so often happens, it appears that Khobragade was attentive to the inchoate rights of a broad stratum of poor women, but not to those of the woman she employed to take care of her children and her house. In this case, the ‘political was definitely not the personal,’ to invert one of feminism’s best slogans.

Why is this important? The gap between Khobragade’s much-lauded human rights persona and her alleged personal behavior toward her employees is not unusual.  All too often, when people occupy positions of wealth and power - whether in diplomacy and government, business, charity or philanthropy - the gap between principles and practice is very wide. But this isn’t just an unfortunate coincidence - it’s an inconsistency that undermines their efforts to be effective change agents in society at large. And the same applies to you and to me, even if we don’t have the money to employ a nanny or start our own foundation. How so?

Take the example of H. Ty Warner, who was convicted for large-scale tax evasion on January 14th. Warner is the inventor of the “Beanie Babies” dolls which have made him one of the 400 richest people in America, with a personal fortune worth over $2 billion. Warner hid more than $24 million in income in Swiss bank accounts between 1996 and 2008.  However, at his trial he was discharged with 500 hours of community service and two years of probation.

Although Warner was clearly guilty and tearfully apologized for his crimes in court, the judge let him off after reading letters from beneficiaries praising his “quiet generosity.”  The judge cited Warner’s charitable contributions to a kidney dialysis patient, salesmen from his company Ty Inc., schools and his local park.  Apparently, Ty Inc had also donated “Beanie Boos” and “Beanie Erasers” to a project that helped poor children in Illinois, along with Beanie Babies for distribution to Iraqi orphans. Warner also donated money to the Ty Warner Sea Center in Santa Barbara, California.  His assistance to a dialysis patient apparently refers to an impromptu gift of $20,000 to a woman he met on the street, who told him that she needed a stem cell procedure because she didn’t qualify for a kidney transplant. 

Warner’s lawyers filed an affidavit that extolled his charitable  instincts toward his employees. “Ty does not just employ people, he helps them build their careers and their lives,” it recounted.  “He rewards them financially and, when they have problems, he tends to them personally…The continued development of Ty’s businesses, and his relationships with his employees, will be jeopardized if he is incarcerated.” 

In fact Warner seems to have been much less charitable to other people in his employment, as revealed in a ProPublica investigative report that was published in 2013. The report accused Ty Inc. of recruiting Mexican immigrants from street corners in Chicago to work in the company’s warehouses for $6 an hour, well below the Illinois minimum wage of $8.25.  Ty Inc. conducts its business through illegal labor brokers called “raiteros,” who charge immigrants for the privilege of being picked up for work, and for cashing their paychecks. The workers don’t actually know who they work for (not much of a basis for protecting workers’ rights), only that they work on “los peluches” (or stuffed toy animals). 

In any case it’s impossible to gauge how charitable Warner actually is. He has no family foundation and his company doesn’t have a corporate foundation either. There are no legal filings or disclosures that explain whether Warner gives a higher or lower proportion of his wealth to charities, and the affidavit filed in his tax fraud case contains only two paragraphs that provide a general description of his giving, along with the disclaimer that “Ty will not catalogue all, or even the majority, of his charitable acts here.” But according to the judge who sentenced him, this was enough to trump federal guidelines on tax evasion that call for a prison sentence of up to 57 months.

The gap between Warner’s supposed personal generosity and the realities of his business practice is not, of course, unique. Wal-Mart has been consistently embarrassed by press coverage of the charitable giving drives in its stores that help its employees to get their dinners at Thanksgiving.  At the same time, Wal-Mart has resisted all efforts to compel the company to pay a living wage, most recently threatening to stop work on three planned stores in Washington DC if the mayor endorsed a living wage ordinance passed by the city council. Because it pays them so little, a significant proportion of Wal-mart’s employees are food stamp recipients and users of other federal subsidies - meaning that the U.S. taxpayer is subsidizing Wal-Mart’s ability to pay poverty-level wages to its staff. 

At the same time, Wal-Mart’s profits have endowed two philanthropic foundations – one attached to the Walton family (which owns 48 per cent of the company’s stocks), and the other attached to the company itself. The Walton Family Foundation is now the second largest in the USA in terms of the grants it awards each year, $482.7 million in 2011, while the Wal-Mart Foundation is the second largest corporate foundation in America with $157 million in grants. But so what? Improving wages and benefits for its workforce of over two million people would have a much bigger impact on poverty than giving any amount of money away to the pet projects of these foundations. And it would create two million potential philanthropists instead of two.

That’s why consistency is so important. If we can’t build the “beloved community” inside our families, factories, and foundations, we are unlikely to be successful at any larger scale. Our efforts will end up like those of Wal-mart, Warner and Khobragade – giving with one hand while taking with the other. Consistency is what builds the human infrastructure for social change – the personal commitment to live out our values in every sphere of life.

By contrast, the day laborers at Ty Inc, along with many Wal-mart staff and Sangeeta Richard, Devyani Khobragade’s nanny, are not among the beneficiaries of these people’s advocacy, philanthropy or charity. In fact, Richard now has few options in front of her, while her former employee has many more. Khobragade’s attorney has charged that Richard tried to blackmail his client, and at Khobragade’s request, the Indian government filed charges against Richard and her husband for breach of contract and illegally obtaining a passport with the intention of emigrating to the USA. These are charges that Richard denies.

Because of these actions, the U.S. government flew Richard and her family to the United States for their own protection, and to avoid pressure from the Indian authorities for Richard to return to face likely prosecution.  Richard’s attorney is perplexed that his client, the underpaid nanny, has become the criminal, rather than Khobragade, the arrested violator of New York State’s minimum wage laws and Domestic Workers Bill of Rights - just as small-scale tax evasion is punished while the big fish swim away.   

As a result of the Khobragade case, the Indian government plans to treat all domestic workers assigned to their diplomats who are posted in the USA as government employees, rather than as private workers with A3 visas, so as to avoid the jurisdiction of US domestic labor laws. This makes the case much more than an issue of minimum hours and wages. In fact it is closer to human trafficking in compelling domestic workers to live under conditions akin to indentured labor in a country where they would no longer enjoy any legal protection. According to the International Business Times, fourteen additional cases concerning Indian diplomats and their domestic workers are already being investigated by U.S. authorities.

In what may be a final irony, Devyani Khobragade’s father has been outspoken in his criticism of actions against his daughter, suggesting that U.S. government officials have been making charges against her “retroactively.” Some years ago, he was the General Manager of “Brihanmumbai Electricity Supply and Transport”, a huge company that operates bus lines in metropolitan Mumbai.  In 2009, under his direction, buses allowed students in Mumbai’s colleges and universities to screen award-winning short films on the vehicles’ LCD video screens.

The subject was human trafficking.  

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