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India rejects Australian court order to pay relief to ex-envoy's domestic help

New Delhi: After a former envoy of India to Australia was ordered by a court Down Under to pay a woman, who once served as his domestic employee, a hefty compensation, New Delhi expressed concern and reminded Canberra of its obligations under the Vienna Conventions on Diplomatic Relations.

New Delhi also stated that the authorities in Australia had no locus standi to adjudicate on matters concerning India-based members of the service staff of the High Commission of India in Canberra.

“We are taking up the matter with (the) Australian authorities. We would urge Australia to uphold its obligations under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, particularly in relation to diplomatic immunities and privileges,” Arindam Bagchi, the spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), said.

Justice Elizabeth Raper of the Federal Court of Australia ordered Navdeep Suri, New Delhi’s former envoy to Canberra, to pay Seema Sherghill more than AUD 136,000 plus interest within 60 days.

Suri, who joined the Indian Foreign Service in 1983, served as India’s High Commissioner to Australia from April 2015 to November 2016. He later served as New Delhi’s envoy to the United Arab Emirates from December 2016 till his retirement from the service on September 30, 2019.

Shergill arrived in Australia in April 2015 on an official passport issued by the Government of India and a diplomatic visa issued by the Government of Australia.

She worked for Suri and his wife as a domestic employee till May 2016 and then fled the residence of the High Commissioner of India in Canberra.

She had earlier worked for the Suri as a domestic employee during his stint in Cairo as India’s ambassador to Egypt from August 2012 and April 2015.

Shergill, however, told the Federal Court that she had to work for 17.5 hours per day during her stint at the residence of Suri in Canberra, and she had received a salary of AUD 7.80 daily, according to a report by ABC News.

Suri did not appear in the court, but Justice Raper allowed the proceedings to move without his participation.

“(Ms Sherghill’s) employment conditions bore no resemblance to what one would expect under Australian law,” the ABC News quoted Justice Raper saying while delivering her verdict. “Her passport was taken from her, she worked seven days a week, was never permitted to take leave and was only allowed outside the house for brief periods a day when looking after Mr Suri’s dogs.”

Without directly referring to Shergill, Bagchi, the MEA spokesperson, said in New Delhi that a member of the service Staff of the High Commission of India in Canberra had wilfully deserted her post in May 2016, a day before her scheduled return to India. “She was holding an official passport and Australian diplomatic visa. Since then, we have repeatedly requested Australian authorities to locate and repatriate her to India.”

“We have learnt that she has made allegations against the then High Commissioner and an ex-parte judgement has now been issued by an Australian court,” he said, adding: “Let me reiterate that we reject any locus standi of Australian authorities to adjudicate on matters concerning such India-based Service Staff of the High Commission,”

He said that if Shergill had any grievance, she should suitably get it redressed only in India.

The MEA spokesperson said that her conduct and false representations gave rise to suspicions that all these had been motivated by her desire to permanently stay in Australia, and in which she seemed to have succeeded.

“We are also concerned by the ex-parte court judgement. We are taking up the matter with Australian authorities,” he added.

In December 2013, another Indian woman, Sangita Richards, had lodged a complaint in the US alleging that her employer India’s Deputy Consul General in New York, Devyani Khobragade, had failed to pay her the minimum wage for her service as the domestic worker at the diplomat’s residence. Khobragade had been arrested by the US authorities and it had triggered a diplomatic row between New Delhi and Washington DC. Richards later got asylum and subsequently the citizenship in US.

(Published 09 November 2023, 15:28 IST)

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