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Advocates: Worker abuse by diplomats a problem

Nahar Alam, second from right, a former domestic worker from Bangladesh, gestures towards 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.AP Photo

Nahar Alam, second from right, a former domestic worker from Bangladesh, gestures towards 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.AP Photo

NEW YORK — The prosecution of an Indian consular official in New York accused of forcing her maid to toil for little pay 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.

There have been at least 20 cases in the past decade filed by workers who said they were brought to the U.S. by diplomatic officials and threatened with abuse, forced to work endless hours and kept isolated, with their employers not charged criminally.

“We’ve seen it across the board, we’ve seen with country missions to the U.N., we’ve seen it with consular officials, diplomats of all levels,” said anti-trafficking attorney Dana Sussman, who is representing the maid in the Indian case.

The case against Devyani Khobragade, India’s deputy consul general in New York, is unusual in part because the U.S. State Department has said she does not have immunity, a claim her attorney and the Indian government are disputing. Khobragade, 39, was 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 case has prompted outrage and protests in India, where officials there say she is the innocent victim of a scheming worker. They say her strip-search and jailing by federal authorities was inhumane.

Advocates worry the outcry could silence further prosecutions.

“Everybody in the advocacy community hopes this doesn’t set us back,” said Avaloy Lanning, the head of anti-trafficking program at the nonprofit Safe Horizon. “All of us are applauding the federal government for taking this stand, it was quite courageous and precedent-setting, and sends the message that we care about victims in these cases.”

The State Department says it records mistreatment allegations made against diplomats and international workers in a database, but a spokeswoman would not say how many names were in the database or who was listed.

“We have taken unprecedented steps both to advise domestic workers of their rights in this country, and to impress upon diplomats that they are obligated to abide by our laws,” said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki. “And when abuses do occur, we have done everything in our power to get victims out of harm’s way and bring their abusers to justice.”

In 2011, U.S. officials arrested Taiwan’s envoy in Kansas City, Mo., on charges of trafficking maids from the Philippines. The government there at first demanded the woman’s release claiming she had immunity, but eventually relented and she was jailed and deported.

“The rule of the day has always been to intimidate these victims into going away,” said Martina Vandenberg, a lawyer who runs a nonprofit that offers legal help to trafficking victims. She said the Khobragade case shows the U.S. is willing to prosecute, and won’t let diplomatic immunity “mean impunity,” she said.

But many cases in recent years weren’t prosecuted criminally, because of a lack of evidence or because of immunity complications, and ended up in civil courts.

In August 2011, Santosh Bhardwaj said she was lured to the United States with a promise of $10 per hour wages plus overtime and good working conditions. Instead, her lawsuit said, she was subjected for a year to forced labor and psychological coercion while she labored from early morning to late at night, seven days a week, at the Manhattan apartment of the then-Consul General of India at the Consulate General of India in New York. The suit ended in an undisclosed settlement.

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