New Delhi: A Swiss court sentenced four members of the Hinduja family to up to four and a half years in jail on Friday for exploiting domestic workers at their Geneva villa.
The criminal court, however, cleared the members of a billionaire family of charges that they engaged in illegal human trafficking of their servants, mostly illiterate Indians, who were employed at their luxurious lakeside villa in Geneva.
According to news agency Associated Press, none of the four family members were in court in Geneva though a fifth defendant — the family’s business manager Najib Ziazi attended the proceedings. He received an 18 months suspended sentence.
The Switzerland court found Indian-born businessman Prakash Hinduja, his wife, son, and daughter-in-law guilty of exploiting workers and providing unauthorised employment. The human trafficking charges were dismissed as the court stated that the staff understood the conditions they were agreeing to.
The Hinduja family, who have been residing in Switzerland for decades, were accused of confiscating workers’ passports, paying them in rupees instead of Swiss francs, restricting their movement, and forcing them to work excessively long hours for meager wages. Prakash Hinduja had previously been convicted on similar, albeit lesser charges in 2007, but prosecutors allege that he continued to employ people without proper documentation.
Last week, it was revealed that the family had reached an undisclosed settlement with the plaintiffs. Swiss authorities have already seized various assets, including diamonds, rubies, and a platinum necklace, which could be used to cover legal fees and potential penalties.
According to prosecutors, employees, including cooks and house help, were sometimes forced to work up to 18 hours a day with little or no vacation time. They were paid less than one-tenth of the amount required under Swiss law. Some staff members allegedly slept in the basement of the villa in the upscale Cologny neighborhood, occasionally on a mattress on the floor. Prosecutors described a “climate of fear” instituted by Kamal Hinduja.
Certain employees reportedly spoke only Hindi and were paid their wages in Indian rupees in banks back home that they couldn’t access. A separate tax case brought by Swiss authorities is pending against Prakash Hinduja, who obtained Swiss citizenship in 2000. The Hinduja family, consisting of Prakash and his three brothers, leads an industrial conglomerate spanning various sectors, with Forbes magazine estimating their net worth at approximately $20 billion.
‘Family spent more on pet dog than they paid a help’
According to Swiss prosecutor Yves Bertossa, the family allegedly spent more money on their pet dog than they paid one of their servants. Bertossa presented this information during a trial concerning the alleged trafficking and exploitation of the Indian employees.
On Monday, the prosecutor had delivered a scathing critique of the Hinduja family’s actions recommending jail sentences ranging up to five and a half years for those involved. Bertossa’s arguments were based on testimonies provided by the staff and the Hindujas themselves, as well as evidence gathered during his investigation into the matter.
“They spent more for one dog than one of their servants,” he said. The woman, he said, was paid at one point as little as 7 Swiss francs ($7.84) for a working day that lasted as long as 18 hours, seven days a week. He pointed to a budget document headlined “Pets”, which he said demonstrated that the family spent 8,584 Swiss francs in a year on their family dog.
Staff contracts didn’t specify working hours or days off, but rather that they be available as needed by their employers, Bertossa continued. Given their passports had been confiscated, they had no Swiss francs to spend as wages were paid in India and couldn’t leave the house without their employer’s permission, they had little to no freedom, he argued.