An Indian American head of an IT consulting firm who has figured among top women business leaders has been accused by the US government of grossly underpaying her live-in domestic help from India and mistreating her by making her sleep in the garage with the family’s dogs when unwell.
Himanshu Bhatia, the founder of Rose International, which earned $357 million in 2011, has been charged by the US labour department of violating the Fair Labor Standards Act. She was also accused of subjecting the help, Sheela Ningwal, to “callous abuse” and punishing her for pursuing her rights, according to a complaint filed in a federal court in California on August 22.
There was no response to a request for comment from Rose International, which is headquartered in St Louis, Missouri. According to court documents, summons were ordered to be issued to Bhatia the day after the complaint.
Bhatia, who was born in Delhi and went to the School of Planning and Architecture, was named among the 25 top women business leaders in the US by Fast Company web magazine in 2012.
She and her family live in San Juan Capistrano, California, and own “mansions, luxury penthouse condominiums in Las Vegas, Long Beach, and Miami”, according to the labour department’s complaint.
Ningwal worked primarily at the family home but also at their other establishments. She was paid a fixed monthly salary of $400, with food and accommodation, regardless of the number of hours of work. The department of labour said this was “grossly below the statutorily mandated minimum wage”.
Describing the abuse, the complaint, filed in the name of US labour secretary Tom Perez, said whenever “Ningwal was ill, Defendant Bhatia forced Ms Ningwal to sleep in the garage on a piece of carpet, alongside Defendant Bhatia’s dogs who slept on a mattress, because Defendant Bhatia did not want her or her family exposed to Ms Ningwal’s illness”.
When travelling, the family would “neglect to leave food” for Ningwal, who was dependent on them.
Her passport was taken from her, and given to her only at the time of travel. Ningwal was fired twice in 2104 – once because she was researching “labor laws” online.
The complaint sought the payment of unpaid wages and damages.
This is not the first time an Indian or an Indian-origin American has been in trouble over domestic help.
In 2013, an Indian Foreign Service officer was arrested in New York for paying the help much lower wages than the amount shown in visa application papers, throwing India-US relations into a major crisis — secretary of state John Kerry has said it was the worst on his watch.