Shahedul-Islam

The news headline read, “Shahedul Islam, 45, deputy Consul General of Bangladesh, was indicted by a New York court on Monday for allegedly assaulting and forcing his domestic aide to work for his family in New York City without pay”. This is not the first time, nor will it be the last time when a Bangladeshi has been in trouble by importing household help and then abusing and demeaning the person. Acting Foreign Secretary Mahbub-uz-Zaman asked the US Ambassador based in Dhaka to explain why the diplomat was detained and ordered to surrender his passport. Maybe, I can explain the basics to Mr. Foreign Secretary.

First of all, the concept of importing people from Bangladesh, India, etc., for household help itself is abhorrent. The relationship between the Master/Mistress of the house and the household help is by definition unequal and one-sided. The underlying reason for this importation is, of course, cheap and/or virtually no cost labor. The people that bring in household help rely on the fact that the poor and uneducated helpers may remain in the dark of Western labour laws and basic knowledge of acceptable working conditions. They tend to lord over these hapless people and put them in a form of slavery. In Bangladesh I have personally seen many instances of abuse of children and household help.

The servants are sometimes beaten, fed very little and paid very little for working from dawn till midnight. These mini little crimes are committed with impunity because Bangladeshi society does not have the Rule of Law as we understand it. There is no equality in the eyes of the law. In Bangladesh poor people are not the beneficiaries of any legal protection against the power of the rich and powerful. However, that impunity goes away when we move to another country, say the United States. The social norms and the laws are pretty much clear cut. What constitute a violation is very much spelled out in statutes and court cases. Precedents play a big role in the US legal system and there are hundreds of cases on slavery and involuntary servitude and the punishments meted out.

The 33-count indictment by the Queens Grand Jury against Shahedul Islam lays out a series of offenses, including labour trafficking, slavery and assault. If convicted the accused faces up to 15 years in state prison. Shahedul is accused of hitting his household help Md. Amin with a wooden shoe, not paying Amin even the minimum wage. I am sure there will be a hundred more things that will crop up in depositions and investigations.

The thing that most of these abusers do is limit the freedom of the victims. Shahedul has been accused of confiscating Md. Amin’s passport, thus limiting his ability to move about and seek help from the proper authorities. This reminds one of a rather notorious case in Colorado in the late 1990s. In that case, a Saudi royal who was doing a PhD at Denver University, imported a couple of Indonesian women to help with the household work. He promptly confiscated their passports and subjected them to long years of servitude with very little pay. He is alleged to have sexually assaulted these women. Since the Saudi perpetrator was a royal the expectation was that he was “entitled” to treat these hired help with such contempt and scorn. However, once the case came up for trial, the Saudi royal was sentenced to twenty years in prison because of the slavery conviction. So much for Saudi royalty.

Shahedul Islam is being supported by the government of Bangladesh and his diplomatic colleagues based in the US. They are invoking the Vienna Consular Convention of 1963 to pressure the US to release their colleague. They have been speaking about the injustice of detaining a diplomat. However, what about basic decency? Here is a guy who wants to have a servant take care of his household needs in America, someone who has no power whatsoever. The concept should make you feel outraged if you live in the West. Yes, one can get household help, housekeeping services from individuals or companies where the transactions are between informed parties and the payment structure comport with the local laws and minimum wage regulations. When someone enslaves another human being no consular laws should protect the despicable act of inhumanity.

By supporting Shahedul the Bangladesh government is once again bowing to the pressures of the upper classes and outdated societal norms in Bangladesh. This is not the only time these sorts of things have happened to the high and mighty from Bangladesh. My question is: why is this practice of importation of helpless people into servitude by diplomats and government service holders not forbidden? No matter what happens in this case, the collective memory of the people involved will whitewash the event and in time there will be yet another incident.

In order to preserve the image of Bangladesh and moving ever so slowly towards a more equitable society we should at least ban the practice of servitude and slavery. It is shameful to have the educated people (I am presuming Shahedul has some modicum of education) perpetrate the crime of human trafficking and slavery and then point out that they are immune from local laws. Well, no one forced Shahedul to come to the US, live in Queens and then proceed to put Md. Amin into slavery. He did it all by himself and maybe with the help of his immediate family and his diplomatic friends. I think there should be an exemplary punishment meted out here.

I am sure this little write-up will induce protests and shrill accusations of cruelty from the powers that be. But if we let these crimes go unpunished we will do great injustice to the cause of humane treatment and equality in the eyes of the law. Some of the hoity-toity diplomats may say they cannot do work without help, in which case I would say, stay home, do not cross the oceans to come to the US with your grandiose ideas of your place in society. If you are here then, yes, take out the trash, clean your own floors, cook your own meals.

24 Responses to “The story of a diplomat in New York”

  1. Arshad Husain

    During the colonial rule of the sub-continent it was “King can do no wrong” … Since we do not have kings, in our case, it should read as “Politician can do no wrong”. In our society, a person not wearing clothes is considered “shameless”. However the reality of the day is: Some of our politicians even with clothes on, remain most shameless … A sad day indeed … Wonder how much of the funds collected from MRP’s by the embassies — Foreign office shall be spent to protect his individual…

    Reply
  2. Mustafa

    The key here is “pay US level wages”, follow “40 hour per week” rule. The ministry should raise the bar as such when allowing its diplomats bring domestic help. Most of the staff at the mission will fail to meet the criteria. Fair enough. No one accepts a US assignment against his or her will.

    Reply
  3. Wahid Choudhury

    A clear piture of a dark side of our Bangladeshi society articulated by the author. Beside rule of law, it is a matter of repecting dignity and human rights for all. Rule of law should prevail. Thank you for this write-up.

    Reply
    • Kayes Ahmed

      Wahid Sahib:

      Thank you for reading my stuff. I find the practice abominable. I hope this kerfuffle sends the message to the elite that it is not OK to enslave people.

      Kayes

      Reply
  4. Qudrate Khoda

    Eloquent, excellent, educative! Thanks a lot Kayes Bhai for your time and trouble.

    Reply
    • Kayes Ahmed

      Qudrate Bhai:

      Thank you for your support. I am, however, afraid that Powers that be will not change their stripes because one political appointee is headed for prison. We need a real cultural change and I do not see that forthcoming.

      Kayes

      Reply
  5. Cheryl

    Don’t stop writing . We need people like you. I work 50+ hours a week and I do my own dishes, clean my house and I cook 🙂

    Reply
    • Kayes Ahmed

      Cheryl:

      If you guys continue to read, I will continue to write. I got started writing these missives because my friend Afsan Choudhury gave me the pointers and shamed me into doing so. Now, I rant and rave against things that I find despicable, like the slavery! Thanks agian.

      Kayes

      Reply
  6. Rumanan Subhan

    Thanks indeed for an article written well. However, if I were a Deshi diplomat my reply would be something like this:
    We are not supposed to ‘take out the trash, clean our own floors, cook our own meals’ as you have naively suggested. You will not most probably understand our feelings and constraints because you guys have become overly Americanized. We are the Khati Deshi diplomats having bluest blood in our veins; we cannot survive without servants.
    You should realize some of our ancestors were Jamindars or had hailed from the royal courts of the Persian kings, although (unfortunately) I was born and raised in a remote Bangla village.
    Besides, most Deshi brothers and sisters have abused their subordinates, what’s the big deal, and why blame only me?
    Anyway, ultimately, I will come out winner Inshallah with the help of my colleagues and the strong support of our government!

    Reply
  7. Dr A Rahman

    This case of Mr Shahedul Islam throws out a can of worms, a deep rooted societal problem in Bangladeshi/Indian/Pakistani societies. The writer has rightly pointed out that this societal ill of mistreating workers is well practised or even valued at home; but when it comes to America or Europe, serious disjointed conflict arises.

    Shahedul Islam is not an isolated case. If one looks around, hundreds, if not thousands, of such abuse and exploitation cases among Indian subcontinent diplomats, UN officials, wealthy businessmen etc. can be found.

    The society and the country of the Indian subcontinent encourage their representatives to display ostentatiously their power and authority of having ‘servants’ in the community of their respective professions and friends’ circle. The implication is that they are so important and their work is so demanding that without ‘servants’ they cannot possibly carryout their responsible jobs properly. The whole show is a monumental fraud reminiscent of the colonial era.

    The sooner this practice is abolished, the better it is for those countries. In the meantime, if the practitioners of such ‘de-facto’ slavery are punished, so be it. The punishment will send a message that this practice will no longer be tolerated.

    Reply
    • Kayes Ahmed

      Rahman Sahib:

      I do not think they consciously think about their actions. They preserve the modality of Dhaka, Mumbai etc. There is no thought or understanding that in the West these practices are abhorrent. That is why they keep doing that and cut surprised and victimized when these guys caught. It is the lack of education, cultural training etc. Thank you for reading my rants though.

      Kayes

      Reply
  8. Nooruddin Ahmed

    Excellent, timely and very powerful write-up. Instead of supporting these monsters, the Bangladesh government should punish/prosecute them for their inhumane actions and tarnishing the image of Bangladesh. An offer of support and apologies from the government to Amin will be a good starting point in our endeavour to end the modern day slavery in Bangladesh and elsewhere. Many thanks…

    Reply
    • Kayes Ahmed

      Noorudin Sahib:

      Thank you. I think it an excellent idea for the GOB to support Amin. But, they are saying he is missing and the District Attorney should throw out the criminal case based on that. No joy there. Thanks again for reading my rants.

      Kayes

      Reply
  9. Shelley Shahabuddin

    Yes, respect for law and order is the main difference between Bangladesh and a developed country, I think.
    Is it really possible for any country to become a developed country without rule of Law? Is there a single example of any such a country on Earth?
    So, how Bangladesh is planning to become a developed country by 2040 (or even 2050 or 60)?
    I ask this, because, I see actually an active cultural and Institutional practice of Lawlessness in Bangladesh. A few examples are:
    Treatment of Bureaucrats, Drivers of Bus and Trucks, Bank robbers (if they rob the bank by looting in the form of loan), etc.
    I love Bangladesh for all sorts of other reasons. But I love USA only because of rule of law. As long as I am on the right side of it, I am mostly safe. It was almost the other way around in Bangladesh.
    Seeing no other hope, I wonder if our ‘famously vocal’ Chief Justice could influence rule of law in Bangladesh (not negatively) through one of his highly publicized public speeches!

    Reply
    • Kayes Ahmed

      Dear Shahabuddin:

      “Rule of Law” is a very big deal. In Asia the only country that has gotten it right is Singapore. Part of it has to do with a strong willed leader and part of it has to do with the necessity of a small city state. The only other way to achieve that would be transparency at all levels of governmental actions. Outside oversight of the Justice Department and clear separation of the various branches of the government. We can start with transparency and then go from there.

      Thank you so very much for reading my rants. you guys inspire me to continue to rant and rave!

      Kayes

      Reply
    • Arshad Husain

      Nature has its ways in correcting wrongs … Do not give up hope … Ours is a resilient nation and we are survivors … With time we shall surely overcome this sad culture albeit the sooner the better…

      Reply
  10. Dr Mannan Mridha

    Dear author,
    Very well written! Thanks for your very valuable views.
    I agree with what you have written and I myself do the same as “If you are here then, yes, take out the trash, clean your own floors, cook your own meals”
    Now, I know there are people in Bangladesh who love to go abroad and do this kind of work. I know people in Bangladesh who have house help for years and they have a very caring and loving relationship. Both parties need each other and enjoy their company.
    We should encourage such demanding and valuable jobs. Many who are not well educated get this opportunity to see the world.
    But we must pay them well and we must treat them well like the statement when you are in the West, take out your trash, clean your own floors and toilets, and cook your own meals including wash your own pots and pans.

    Reply
    • Kayes Ahmed

      Mridha Sahib:

      There is nothing wrong with getting help with household work. I have a housekeeper who comes twice a week. I pay her for her work and treat her like a human being. The problem is that when people bring someone from Bangladesh they are banking on the unequal relationship and lack of knowledge. Pay them what you would pay someone you hired here, give them days off (40 hour week etc.), treat people humanely and I think you are good to go. The problem is one of exploitation and slavery. Thank you for reading my rants. I appreciate the support.

      Kayes

      Reply

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