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December 19th, 2013
06:13 PM ET

Advocate: Treatment of housekeeper, not Indian diplomat, should be the issue

(CNN) - There has been plenty of outrage abroad over the arrest and strip-search of an Indian diplomat, but what about the contempt over the crime she is accused of committing?

Devyani Khobragade faces federal visa fraud charges. The feds say she submitted false documents to get a work visa for her housekeeper, and then paid the woman far below the minimum wage – about $3.31/hour.

Khobragade was arrested in New York and privately strip search searched, which law enforcement officials say is standard in these types of cases. Her attorney said because she was a diplomat, she should not have been arrested at all. In India, groups are staging protests outside the U.S. embassy, calling the treatment of Khobragade "barbaric."

What seems to be getting lost in the debate over how she was treated is the serious nature of the charges against her.

President of The Human Trafficking Pro Bono Legal Center Martina Vandenberg said she is not surprised, "but utterly disappointed" with how much attention has been given to the diplomat's treatment.

"The real focus should really be on the housekeeper, the domestic worker who was brought over to the United States on a special visa, and then treated abysmally, almost like an indentured servant," said Vandenberg.

The U.S. attorney's office says Khobragade not only paid her housekeeper a substandard wage, but lied about it. They say she made the woman sign a secret contract, putting her wages at far below the minimum wage, and that she removed any language that would protect the worker from exploitation and abuse.

Despite all that, the alleged victim and her family have been under so much scrutiny, that the family had to be removed from India and brought to the U.S. for protection.

It is no wonder there are so few reported cases of human trafficking and worker abuse, despite how common it is become among foreign diplomats in the U.S.

The government accountability office looked into this issue in 2008 and found more than 42 domestic workers alleged they were abused by their foreign diplomat employers since 2000.

But the actual number is likely higher since many victims are too afraid to come forward.

The criminal complaint against Khobragade does not say she engaged in trafficking, but it does allege very serious crimes – lying to the federal government, committing visa fraud, and putting this person in a situation of a true labor exploitation.

This is the third known case of alleged employee abuse involving the Indian consulate in New York in recent years. There was a similar case involving an ambassador in 2009.

Human trafficking and slave labor among diplomats living in the U.S.is "a huge problem," says Vandenberg.

"Unfortunately, we almost never see criminal prosecutions. Now, in this case, this individual only had consular immunity, protection Monday through Friday, 9 to 5.

"But a lot of diplomats who are engaging in really serious behavior have immunity 24/7 and so they are not arrested, they are not prosecuted and indeed, enjoy total impunity for their crimes," said Vandenberg.

For more of our interview with The Human Trafficking Pro Bono Legal Center's Martina Vandenberg, watch the video above.

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