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.