The arrest in the US of deputy consul general Devyani Khobragade highlights that while the US is stringent about ensuring that its labour laws are followed by others, Washington itself might not be diligent in sticking to the rule book.
US embassies worldwide, including in India, employed 45,576 local staff as of March 2013, according to reports. “It is entirely unfair for locally employed staff to see their American colleagues receive a January increase year after year and they receive nothing for five years and counting,” said a 2009 report, titled Review of Locally Employed Staff Compensation Issues, by the US department of state and the broadcasting board of governors.
The land on which a foreign embassy is housed is deemed to belong to the foreign country and is therefore governed by the laws of the foreign country, say ministry of external affairs officials. So even though diplomats in India pay higher than local wages to their Indian staff here, the wage is significantly lower than the minimum wage in their respective countries.
In their eagerness to work for foreign missions in India, local staff never realise that they are entitled to be paid much more. “I keep looking for jobs with embassies or diplomats,” said Ranjana, who has worked as a domestic staff for a European diplomat. “I used to earn Rs18,000 per month. Now, I only get Rs8,000 per month at the international organisation that I work for.”
The disparity is significant as the stature of the job increased. “As political advisor with a foreign mission, my salary was Rs1,70,000. However, my western counterpart who was a notch senior was paid nearly five times my salary,” said an Indian, who now works for a think tank.
India does not prescribe any minimum wage as the country lacks labour laws. This is why a diplomat from a Scandinavian country last year chose an India posting over Canada to save on cost of local domestic and nursing staff that would be required for his wife who was expecting.
The diplomat’s decision highlights the disparity in the wages of local staff hired in India and other missions by diplomats.
Foreign missions also tend to employ staff, such as private security guards and domestic staff, through contract agencies. As such, their salaries are paid by contracting companies and they are not eligible for employee benefits. “Foreigners have learnt the tricks of the trade and know how to save money in India,” said a staffing contract agency owner.
Incidentally, the reason why Khobragade was arrested is a matter of an unspoken understanding between an employer and employee when working for Indian missions abroad. To meet the tough and expensive labour laws of developed countries, most Indian missions there recruit non-diplomatic staff from India. Even though the staff signs contracts as per the law of the foreign country, both the employer and employee know that the salary is a negotiable part of the deal.
Self-flagellation and doing nothing
It is entirely unfair for locally employed staff to see their American colleagues receive a January increase year after year and they receive nothing for five years and counting, says a 2009 report by the US department of state and the broadcasting board of governors.