NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — A former housekeeper for the top diplomatic official at India’s consulate in New York filed a lawsuit on Monday saying he took her passport and intimidated her into a year of forced labor, where she was subjected to 105-hour workweeks for only a few dollars an hour in pay.
The woman, Santosh Bhardwaj, said in her lawsuit that she finally “escaped” the arrangement after Consul General Prabhu Dayal made what she thought was an inappropriate sexual advance by allegedly asking her to massage his legs. She said she had been getting paid $300 per month — far less than the $10 per hour in her contract.
Dayal denied that Bhardwaj had been paid any less than what she was promised, or that he did anything to keep her in his household against her will. He also expressed anger that she had “absconded” from the job without warning and said he had “never, ever asked her to give me a massage.”
“This is a lie. I keep the passports of my family members because I don’t want them to be lost or misplaced,” Dayal said. “If I had ever any desire that she should not be allowed to go back to India, I wouldn’t have sent her from Morocco on leave at my expense and allowed her to come back.”
Both sides describe an abrupt end to a work relationship that had, until last year, been uneventful.
Before coming to the U.S., Bhardwaj worked for Dayal’s family off-and-on for five years in India, Morocco and Mexico. In 2009, she agreed to work at his Manhattan residence under a contract that guaranteed her $10 per hour for 40 hours of service per week.
But when she arrived, the suit claims, Dayal confiscated her travel documents, had her sleep in a storage room, and worked her from morning to night, seven days a week with no overtime pay and no days off. Her salary, according to the lawsuit, wasn’t paid directly; Dayal deposited the money in an account in India that she couldn’t access from the U.S.
Very little money came through, the suit said. Bhardwaj’s lawyers said the pay, made in rupees, amounted to an average of $300 per month.
Dayal’s wife, Chandini Dayal, repeatedly “threatened to send Ms. Bhardwaj back to India if she did not do as told, or did not work faster,” the suit said.
Bhardwaj, who had been issued a visa to travel to the United States because of her employment with a diplomat, said she felt trapped, but finally fled the household in 2010 after Dayal responded to a question about the whereabouts of her money by saying she could earn it by massaging his legs.
Dayal’s lawyer, Ravi Batra, called Bhardwaj ungrateful and claimed she had violated the terms of her visa by quitting her post with the family to work for someone else.
“She has betrayed the trust of the Dayal family, India and the United States with her illegal abandonment of employment in favor of illegal higher pay from illegal employers,” Batra said.
He said she was paid $400 per week, minus U.S. payroll taxes, and lived in a modestly furnished studio in the consular mansion. She only left because she was “apparently crazed about illegally cashing in on America’s need for domestic help” and was upset that Dayal had refused her request to moonlight in another job, he said.
“This fraudster of a woman, seeing dollar signs, has hit on a ‘get rich quick’ scheme after a year and a half of illegally staying and working in New York: fraudulent defamation of a highly respected and honored member of the diplomatic corps,” Batra wrote.
He didn’t address her claims that she wasn’t paid overtime but said she had ample time off from the job.
Bhardwaj is being represented in the case by lawyers with New York’s Legal Aid Society, which provides free legal services to the poor.
One of her lawyers, Hollis Pfitsch, said diplomats working in New York City aren’t exempt from state employment laws and that Dayal was obligated to pay at least the state minimum wage plus overtime for any work in excess of 44 hours per week. She said it is expressly illegal for any employer to take a worker’s passport.
Pfitsch said that, in some ways, the case wasn’t unusual. The Legal Aid Society, she said, has represented a number of foreign workers who have been brought to the United States to work for less than a legal wage.
“We’ve seen a shocking number of these more extreme cases, where people either find workers here or bring them from another country, and pay them little to nothing,” she said.
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