Ex-Maid’s Story of Enslavement is Not Unusual, Advocates Say

Domestic workers have gathered at rallies like this one to press for legal protections. (Photo by Bobo Yip/flickr via Feet in 2 Worlds))

Feet in 2 Worlds dug into the story of Shanti Gurung, the ex-maid of an Indian diplomat and her husband who says that she was brought to America as a teenager and forced to work 16-hour days without pay:

On February 22, New York Magistrate Judge Frank Maas recommended that Indian national Shanti Gurung be awarded nearly $1.5 million by her former employer, Neena Malhotra, a diplomat in the Indian Mission to the United Nations for enslaving Gurung.

Maas wrote that Malhotra and her husband compelled Gurung to “work without pay by seizing her passport and visa, restricting her ability to leave their apartment, and constantly warning her that if she traveled on her own without their permission, she would be arrested, beaten, raped and sent back to India as ‘cargo.’”

When she came to New York City in 2006, Malhotra brought the 17-year-old Gurung from India to serve as her house-maid, Feet in 2 Worlds reported. Adhikaar, an organization that advocates for the Nepali community and helped lobby for the New York State Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, stepped in to help Gurung.

Gurung was paid once, less than $120 over a period of more than three years. She felt trapped and helpless, paralyzed with fear over the Malhotras’ threats. Eventually the young woman mustered the courage to leave in 2009 and sought the aid of Adhikaar, which facilitated her lawsuit.

Advocates applauded the judge’s recommendation in Gurung’s case, which they said is far from unusual amongst trafficked domestic workers. 

“This is a validation of Shanti’s story and her struggle – and that of many more sisters who are trafficked and face inhumane forms of labor exploitation,” said Adhikaar’s Senior Community Organizer Narbada Chhetri.

Adhikaar and the DAMAYAN Migrant Workers Association, an independent non-profit organization for Filipino immigrants’ rights and welfare, are working together to assert the rights of domestic workers trafficked by diplomats.

Leah Obias, Campaigns Coordinator and Case Manager of DAMAYAN, said that both organizations have called upon Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the State Department to take a more principled stand on the human rights of domestic workers, by waiving diplomatic immunity in cases of trafficking and by enforcing the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA).

They would also like to see the countries of trafficked workers held accountable and diplomats barred from bringing domestic workers into the U.S.

“Diplomats are protected under the law, but workers are not protected by law in the U.S. and their home countries,” explained Obias.

The recommendation that Malhotra be forced to pay Gurung compensation is subject to approval by Judge Victor Marrero, who is overseeing the case. And even if the court does order the payment, Gurung is unlikely to see a payday, Feet in 2 Worlds reported:

Gurung may have won her case, but it’s highly unlikely she will ever see a cent. The Malhotras returned to India last year before they could be served the lawsuit and it is doubtful that the Indian government will intervene. The State Department has yet to act on Adhikaar and DAMAYAN’s call for action.

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