NEW DELHI – Indian maid Manju Bahri has heard about the controversy in New York over the alleged mistreatment of a fellow maid by an Indian diplomat. It doesn't surprise her.
"I don't know about what's happened in America, but it would be good if we had some local authority here who we could complain to if employers did not pay us on time, or paid us too little," said Manju, saying she has to run off to work.
Maids, also known as domestics here, say they have little recourse in India if they feel they are being underpaid or mistreated by employers.
Some are pleased that diplomat Devyani Khobragade was arrested on charges of paying her maid she brought from India far less than the U.S. federal minimum wage. But others say the maid was trying to take advantage of her employer.
"What do you mean by fair wage? If she agreed to a certain amount before leaving India, then how can she suddenly ask to be paid more upon reaching America?" wondered Aseema Haldar Saha, a 36-year-old domestic worker.
The case has become major news in India, where politicians have lashed out at the United States for arresting Khobragade, India's deputy consul general in New York.
Khobragade was strip-searched following her arrest in what the U.S. Marshals Service said was standard procedure. But India politicians have reacted with anger, calling for an apology and the dropping of charges against Khobragade.
"The fact is that American authorities have behaved atrociously with an Indian diplomat and obviously America has to make good for its actions," Information Minister Manish Tewari said Friday. "I think it's a legitimate expectation that if they have erred — and they have erred grievously in this matter — they should come forth and apologize."
U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara in New York, who is handling the case, said earlier this week that Khobragade was treated well, and questioned why there was more sympathy in India for the diplomat than the housekeeper.
U.S. Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman said both countries affirmed their intent to keep working through this complex issue.
On Friday, the diplomat's father, Uttam, said his daughter treated the maid, Sangeeta Richard, like a member of the family. He said Richard had Sundays off and was free to attend church and visit her friends.
He filed a lawsuit in India earlier this year on his daughter's behalf, saying Richard was wrongly accusing his daughter of treating her like a slave, suggesting Richard was pressuring Khobragade for a visa to stay in the United States on her own.
But Richard's lawyer said Thursday that the housekeeper worked from morning until late at night, seven days week, for less than $3 an hour. Unable to get better pay, she made sure Khobragade's two children were cared for one day and walked out, lawyer Dana Sussman said.
Protests erupted in cities around India, where demonstrators burnt effigies of President Obama. The Indian government has since downgraded certain privileges granted to American diplomatic staff in New Delhi like withdrawing all airport passes and stopping import clearance of liquor to the US Embassy.
The Indian government snubbed a visiting American delegation refusing requests for a meeting till Khobragade was tendered an apology. Indian media have mainly focused on the humiliation of Khobragade.
"What's unsettling about this case is how little we know about Richard's side of the story," said Deepanjana Pal on the news website Firstpost. "While there are endless articles available on Khobdagade and how terribly she's been treated by U.S. officials, there's almost nothing on Richard."
Or for that matter there has been little said by the politicians going after the U.S. attorney about how maids are treated in India.
In large cities like New Delhi and Mumbai, most middle-class families employ a maid or two; many have separate drivers, gardeners and cooks. According to a report by the Indian government, nearly 5 million people employ at least two domestic workers.
Yet, except in the states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, domestic workers are not offered any legal protection. Seven Indian states have made efforts to standardize minimum wage, but the recommended wage has been set low.
Also, there are no guidelines that govern working hours, or minimum wage, and no authority to turn to in cases of exploitation, say the workers.
"At the most I would complain to the local Resident Welfare Association if I had a problem – but even then I would be scared – chances are that they will side with my employers rather than me," Manju Bahri said.
But other maids say Richard is in the wrong.
Saha has been working as a maid in New Delhi since she was 16. For the past three years, she has worked six hours a day, six days a week and takes home a salary of $128 per month.
She cannot understand why the U.S. authorities would arrest the "Indian lady" even though she was paying Richard vastly more than any maid can expect to earn in India.
"See, if someone pays me less than I expect, what can I do? At the most I will leave the job but there's nowhere I can go to file a complaint or anything like that," she said.
Only in very rare cases do domestic workers get a written contract. Most continue in their jobs on little more than a verbal agreement. But it is not uncommon to hear reports of maids and servants who have been physically abused.
In November 2013, Indian lawmaker Dhananjay Singh and his wife were arrested for the alleged murder of their 35-year-old maid Rakhi. An autopsy suggested Rakhi had died of a severe beating – she was also found with burn marks on her body.
Last year, a 13-year-old maid Munni – employed despite laws against child labor – was rescued from a house in New Delhi. She had been locked up in the house by her affluent employers – both of whom are doctors – while they vacationed in Thailand. She had been warned not to touch any food in the house, and was near starvation when rescued.
"There are many people who mistreat maids," Manju said. "It's pointless to go to the police. Instead we just keep each other updated, and if a maid quits her job because of abuse or exploitation, none of us take a job in that house."