In the shadow of abuse, exploitation: State of domestic help workers in India

New Delhi: Bardani Logun sits on a plastic chair in the communal room of a hostel in Rohini, north Delhi, where she lives with her toddler, and speaks candidly about being beaten, abused and starved.

She is one of countless young women from the tribal belt of India who have migrated to Delhi to find work as live-in maids, hoping to send their earnings back home to support impoverished families in Jharkhand, Orissa, Chhattisgarh or West Bengal. Like many others, Logun found work through a placement agency, which promised to find her a full-time job and a secure salary living with a Delhi family.

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The reality was grim. Her employers kept her trapped in the house, bullied and starved her. “I worked for them for only a month,” she says, “and then I couldn’t stay any more.” The placement agency withheld her wages and she couldn’t afford the train fare home. Logun and her daughter, Theresa, were stranded homeless in Delhi until they found the hostel run by Nirmala Niketan, a non-governmental organization (NGO).

As her mother speaks, Theresa runs about with the other boys and girls who stay in the hostel, shrieking with laughter in the glare of a muted TV set in the corner. Other women listen in. Each has her own tale to tell and the accounts are depressingly uniform: a litany of sexual or physical abuse, stolen wages and isolation; they illustrate a wide-spread, but largely unacknowledged, problem.

While there is surging demand for household help in metros such as Delhi, the absence of a regulatory framework has led to the emergence of a shadow industry of placement agencies, spiking from a handful at the start of the decade to more than 1,000 today in the Capital alone.

In the absence of oversight or registration requirements, these agencies are given free rein to recruit and place women in private homes without being held accountable for their working conditions. Worse, in some instances, agents have been guilty of trafficking girls, forcing them into bonded labour or prostitution and stealing their wages.

The problem

Domestic work is not recognized under India’s labour laws, nor is it included under the minimum wage law in most states. As a result, agencies are not required to retain lists of women placed, or records of employers.

“Workers are not being told the conditions under which they are being placed. They might not know how much their salary is, how much commission the placement agencies will take, or when they will get paid,” says Neetha Pillai, a senior fellow at the Centre for Women’s Development Studies, a think tank. As a result many women move from one exploitative situation to another.

According to Pillai, agencies create a network of locals in the villages who are paid about Rs. 1,000 per head for every girl they send to the cities. Grace, who uses only one name, was only eight years old when she was first brought to Delhi, by a neighbour who helped find her a job through an agent.

Now 17, she wears a green kurta and a bold, somewhat combative, expression as she describes the abuse she suffered. “The mother would slap me and shout at me,” she says. After four years of abuse, Grace went to the agency for help. “I cried in front of them and said that I didn’t want to stay here any more; I said I wanted to go home.” The agent refused to pay Grace her wages and instead placed her with another family.

Her next employer was equally harsh. “She said that I didn’t know anything, that I was from the jungle and I was ignorant. She said it was God who was providing me with shelter and a home and that I should feel lucky to be there. It built up her pride to make me feel lower than her,” Grace says.

She was kept inside, even prevented from going to church on Christmas Day, until a neighbour’s maid intervened and told Grace about Nirmala Niketan, a women’s cooperative that acts as a placement agency, children’s hostel and safe house for domestic workers in need.

Subhash Bhatnagar, who has been running Nirmala Niketan for six years, has regular dealings with employers and notes that dishonest agents exploit them too, holding them to ransom over commission fees and availability of staff.

For some girls, the outcome is even worse—the brothels in places such as GB Road in Delhi are full of migrant women. According to Ravi Kant, of the anti-trafficking NGO Shakti Vahini, most of the girls on GB Road are either from Nepal or the tribal belt. Most, he says, were recruited by local agents who promise good jobs as domestic workers.

Unsafe migration

A 20-year-old from a poor village in Andhra Pradesh is one such victim. She was brought to Delhi by an acquaintance from her village who promised to help place her with a good family as a maid. Instead, she was sold to a brothel along GB Road. There she was raped, beaten and forced to have sex with nearly 40 men daily. She was one of the lucky ones—she was rescued by the Delhi police and Shakti Vahini after her family filed a missing persons report. Most women do not escape.

“There’s a breaking-in period,” says Asha Jayamaran, who works at anti-trafficking NGO Apne Aap. “They are raped repeatedly, tortured such as burnt with cigarettes, blackmailed, threatened that their families will be hurt. By the time the breaking-in period is complete, they suffer a sense of shame and guilt and do not want to return to their villages.”

It’s hard to say how many women are trafficked into prostitution by dishonest placement agencies, but villages are rife with stories of missing girls. And once a girl disappears, it’s virtually impossible to track her down.

“There is a big link between unsafe migration and trafficking,” says Kant. “A lot of the unskilled labour is coming to Delhi in search of the migrant dream. But they don’t necessarily know where to look, so they rely on placement agencies, who say they’ll place them in homes. Instead they’re sold to brothels, or placed in prostitution rackets and sent to various villages in Haryana, Delhi and Punjab. Migration gone wrong becomes trafficking.”

Most activists and experts advocate formalizing the connection between agents and employers by mandated registration as a way out of this destructive cycle. The fact that Delhi’s live-in maids exist in a legal and economic vacuum (often without bank accounts or identification papers) makes them virtually untrackable, unprotected by law and liable to disappear without a trace.

Easier said than done

“Yes, placement agencies have to register—but they don’t have to say what they do,” says Reiko Tsushima, a specialist on gender equality and women workers’ issues, at the International Labour Organization (ILO). “Agencies can be registered as societies, trade unions, trusts, NGOs—but there aren’t any audits or mechanisms for labour checks.”

However, this is easier said than done. There have been attempts to regulate the industry since independence (nationally, there are around 11 versions of Bills to regulate and improve conditions of domestic workers), but none has succeeded in becoming law. In 2008, the National Commission for Women (NCW) attempted to address some of these issues in a Domestic Workers Bill, which would require compulsory registration of agencies, employers and workers and regulate working conditions. However the Bill never made it past the draft stage.

With legal recourse not readily available, the only hope is a clutch of not-for-profit organizations. Bhatnagar, for instance, is working through Nirmala Niketan to try to establish a system by which girls can return home, but he acknowledges that it won’t be easy. There’s also the problem of sexual abuse and its stigma in the villages. In fact, according to Pillai, rape is so common that some agencies inform girls at the outset that they will pay for an abortion should a pregnancy occur. But because many of the girls are Christians, they refuse to have abortions, and are consequently excluded if they try to go back. Returning home can be a more daunting prospect than leaving, says Bhatnagar. “Their families don’t want them to come back or get married. In the long term, these girls are stuck here.”

It isn’t surprising then, that despite everything that’s happened to her in Delhi, Bardani Logun won’t go back to her village. Her in-laws don’t want her any more, she says, and she can’t survive alone. Similarly, Grace has nothing to return to: “My parents didn’t take an interest in my life, they only wanted the money.” For most girls, the journey back to the village will remain an unrealized goal.

cordelia.j@livemint.com

This is the first of a three-part series on the plight of women workers in India.

Next: Independent earners with unstable livelihood.

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parulgupta8ue

I have been voluntarily involved with many NGOs in India since 2002. I strongly believe that all of us can do more by coming together, sharing ideas and working together to address social issues! A techie by training - I have a Bachelor of Technology from IIT Bombay and Masters of Science from U.....read more

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GOPIKANTA GHOSH's picture

Matter of shame..this is true picture of India...how long shall it continue...I admire the way help being extended by wonderful persons to hapless people...practice of employing domestic help should be banned...

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