An Indian Diplomat Joins the Wage Theft Epidemic

Devyani Khobragade was caught violating labor law, but she’s far from the only one.

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FILE - In this Dec. 20, 2013 file photo, members and supporters from a coalition of organizations supporting domestic workers, rally outside the Indian Consulate in New York where Devyani Khobragade, India's deputy consul general was believed to be staying after she was arrested and charged with lying on a visa form by stating she paid her housekeeper $4,500 a month when she actually was paying her under $3 per hour, less than half the minimum wage. The prosecution of Khobragade highlights a problem advocates say is all too common — workers for foreign governments who bring along the baggage of human trafficking to the U.S. Because of the complications surrounding immunity laws, many abuse cases often go unreported or uncharged, advocates say. Victims' claims often end up in civil court for that reason, they say.

An Indian diplomat indicted on charges of visa fraud and making false statements to law enforcement was unceremoniously booted out of the U.S. yesterday, hopefully drawing an escalating tit-for-tat between the two countries one step closer to its end. The rounds of ugly reactions and counterreactions between Washington and New Delhi began after the diplomat, Devyani Khobragade, was arrested and strip-searched by New York authorities last month.

Amongst the charges filed against Khobragade by the U.S. attorney's office of the Southern District of New York is the allegation that she terminally underpaid her nanny, forcing the nanny to work for about $1 an hour, obviously far below the New York state minimum wage. She's also accused of refusing to allow the nanny to take sick leave, telling the victim "not to get sick because it was too expensive," according to the U.S. attorney's office.

These are unacceptable violations of labor law, and it's a good thing Khobragade was discovered, arrested and shown the proverbial door. But there are scores of American workers all across the country who deal with the same abuses every day, and the government is doing precious little to ensure that they get a fair shake as well.

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A 2009 survey by the National Employment Law Project found that 26 percent of workers reported being the victim of a minimum wage violation in the previous week alone. Of the workers who worked more than 40 hours per week, 76 percent reported not being paid the proper overtime rate. Huge majorities of workers also report not receiving legally required time for meals and breaks.

All in all, the average low-wage worker loses $2,634 annually to wage violations, according to the National Employment Law Project. The Department of Labor, meanwhile, says workers lose some $19 billion every year in wages and benefits due to labor law violations.

How did we get here? As Lynn Parramore laid out, worker protections have eroded for the last few decades due to a variety of factors, including union-busting, globalization and outsourcing, and the government has done precious little to stem the tide. According to the Economic Policy Institute, in 1941 there was one federal workplace inspector for every 11,000 workers; by 2008, that had fallen to one for every 141,000 workers. At current levels, the Institute notes, "the average employer has just a 0.001 percent chance of being investigated in a given year." So even rampant abuse is very unlikely to be caught.

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And as for paid sick days, which Khobragade deemed too expensive? The U.S. is the only developed country that doesn't require some sort of paid leave that workers can use when they or their family members are sick (although several cities and one state – Connecticut – have passed their own paid sick leave laws). About one in three American workers, overall, has no paid sick days, and that percentage skyrockets when it comes to particular sectors, such as food workers. There are even 10 states that outright ban cities or counties within their borders from requiring that workers have paid leave to use when dealing with an illness. This not only makes for bad economics, but bad public health as well.

In 2012, there were a record number of wage and hour lawsuits filed under the Fair Labor Standards Act. Between 2004 and 2012, such lawsuits doubled.

Khobragade, then, was just a very bad symptom of a much bigger problem. So good riddance to her. But what about all the other employers who take advantage of their employees in the same way but face no consequences?

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