Shanti Gurung was 17 in when she left India in 2006 and came to New York City with the promise of a job as a maid. She would make around $100 a month to cook and do chores.
When she arrived, she instead found herself working 16 hours or more a day — cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, grocery shopping, and giving massages. At the end of the day, she slept on the living room floor.
After more than three years of work, Gurung had earned a one-time payment of 5,500 rupees, equivalent to less than $120.
This week, six years after she first arrived to New York without friends or family, a judge has recommended that Gurung is owed close to $1.5 million by her former employers — one who was a diplomat with India’s consulate in New York.
Runnin’ Scared got wind of her story last night from Queens-based social justice group Adhikaar, which works with Nepali-speaking immigrants and fights worker exploitation.
This morning, we chatted with the organization’s director to hear a bit more about Gurung’s story and the implications of the ruling.
Gurung was brought here with hopes for a job and was essentially enslaved, Adhikaar’s executive director Luna Ranjit said. Her employers were Neena and Jogesh Malhotra. Neena Malhotra, who now lives in New Delhi, was the press counselor for the Indian Consulate General in New York at the time. In addition to the serious wage exploitation, Gurung claimed that her employers confiscated her passport and told her that if she tried to go anywhere by herself, the police would beat her and send her back to India.
In 2009, she finally left and got support from Adhikaar. And on Wednesday, Magistrate Judge Frank Maas recommended that Gurung be paid close to $1.5 million by her former employers — the result of a civil suit filed in 2010 in New York’s Southern District Court. This recommendation is subject to approval by the judge overseeing the case.
“This is a big victory, not only for Shanti, but also for trafficked domestic workers everywhere,” Ranjit told Runnin’ Scared.
“For her, it’s also a validation of her story. It’s not easy for people in her situation to speak out. She took a big leap of faith — she was very, very courageous to even try telling this story in such a public way,” she said. “If you speak out, you can get justice…At Adhikaar, we’ve seen her go from being so scared and vulnerable to slowly becoming a confident leader.”
Ranjit said that Gurung is now 23 and lives in Queens. “She still has a lot of work to do, because of the trauma she went through. She is slowly piecing her life back together.”
In the release sent out last night, Adhikaar noted that there are 2.5 million domestic workers caring for families across the country.
Ranjit said that her story sheds light on some of the larger challenges for immigrants who come to this country without a support system, thousands of which survived similar exploitation.
“She was brought here, and like many other people…knew no one in the country, didn’t speak the language, didn’t know who to turn to.”
This exploitation is unfortunately common, and often the immigrants may not know their rights.
She added, “Hopefully this will give courage to others who are in similar situations to come forward.”
Neena Malhotra, who currently works in New Delhi on the Ministry of External Affair’s Southeast Asia desk, was not immediately available for comment, MEA spokesman Syed Akbaruddin, told the Wall Street Journal.