The case of a 13-year-old maid who spent five days locked up in an apartment with little food and water while her employers went for a holiday in Thailand has horrified India, bringing into focus problems of child labour and the financial exploitation of domestic workers. The teenager was rescued by a non-profit group, Shakti Vahini, last week after neighbors heard her crying for help on the balcony of an apartment in a well-off residential area in Delhi.
The demand for both part-time and live-in maids has shot up in India with the rapid growth of the upper- and middle- classes, but so have reports of abuse.According to official estimates, there are nearly 12.6 million child workers, of whom 20 per cent engage in household chores. Some of them become valuable assets to their employers, who treat them as family members, while others face tough working conditions.
“This is not the first case of its kind. We have many stories similar to this, sometimes more violent,” Shakti Vahini social worker Rishi Kant said.Under the right to education law, children between the ages of six and 14 have to be in school, but child labour laws allow children over 14 to do light work provided they stay in school. This statute, welfare groups say, is being exploited by placement agencies and many households.
“On the one hand, those under the age of 18 are considered juveniles,” Kant said, “but on the other hand, 14-year-olds can work in households. This is contradictory.”
Implementation of existing laws is also weak, resulting in children younger than 14 winding up working in households.
“In many cases, girls as young as 12 are sexuality exploited, molested and threatened,” Kant said. “We rescue at least 300 to 350 girls a year.”
Poor families often sell their children to agents and dodgy placement agencies, which place them in households but which then charge a one-time fee as high as 25,000 rupees ($489) in addition to claiming their monthly payments over a certain period.
The 13-year-old rescued last week told India’s Child Welfare Committee she had come to Delhi from the state of Jharkhand a year earlier with her uncle, who sold her to a placement agency. Five months later, the agency placed her with doctor couple Sanjay and Sumita Verma, who run a nursing home. She alleged that the abuse started from day one.
“I was regularly beaten by the couple and their daughter. They would hit me with a ruler and pull my hair when I made mistakes,” she said, in a statement to the committee. The girl alleged she was given only two rotis (Indian flat bread) to eat a day during the seven months she worked for them.
On March 25, the Vermas left for a holiday in Thailand, locking her up in the apartment, she said. She ran out of food two days later, and gathered the courage on the fourth day to call for help.
Neighbors, hearing her cries, alerted the authorities. Media attention on the case forced the couple to sneak back into India a day after the maid’s rescue. Their return went undetected, despite police vigilance at airports, until an anonymous tip alerted the cops. The couple were jailed for two days, and their 11-year-old daughter stayed with relatives, as police investigated the case.They tracked down the maid’s parents and charged them with selling a minor. The maid’s parents have denied the charges.Their lawyer maintains that the maid is 18 years old and was given the keys to the apartment when the family left for Thailand. The family also said that the girl was eating instant noodles and having juice for meals, Indian media reported.
Overall, the plight of maids in India is dire. A government task force on domestic servants found recently that many maids did not have decent wages or work conditions, no defined work time and no days off, and faced loneliness, violence, abuse and sexual harassment.With no legislation for maids in India, the government over the last two years has been working on a national policy for domestic workers.
“The policy is now under the consideration of the government… It will provide the same or similar protection to domestic workers as other workers under labour laws,” said Anil Swarup, director-general for labour welfare with the government.The draft of the policy caps the minimum working period for maids to eight hours, provides for annual leave and sick leave, compensation for overtime and social security coverage, and minimum wages as set by the states.
In India’s federal structure, some states have moved to protect the rights of maids. For instance, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and Maharastra have minimum daily wages set between 10 and 12 rupees.Last year, Congress president Sonia Gandhi wrote to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh asking for better working conditions for maids. But welfare groups fear nothing will come of it.
“Domestic workers don’t have a strong voice in India. This girl’s case has been highlighted but such cases happen every day,’ said Father Jose Vattakuzhy, of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India. The Catholic bishops’ organization is among those which have advised the Indian government on drafting a national policy for domestic workers. “There is a need to implement laws and the government has to come up with a fair policy for domestic workers.”
Other cases of abuse
Last week, an 11-year-old domestic help was rescued from Greater Noida, a satellite town of New Delhi, after neighbours said she was being tortured and kept hungry.Police found her with bruises all over her body. Her employers – a golf instructor and an artist – were charged under the Juvenile Justice Act.
On March 21, a New York court awarded the maid of an Indian diplomat US$1.5 million (S$1.8 million) after she accused her and her husband of harassment and slavery. India rejected the US court’s judgment against the diplomat – who has since returned home – citing diplomatic immunity. The government’s stand is that it sent the maid to New York and so it is the government’s responsibility.
In March last year, Bollywood actor Shiney Ahuja, 38, was jailed seven years by a Mumbai court for raping his 18-year-old domestic help.He claimed consensual sex. The maid later retracted her rape allegations. Ahuja is out on bail.
Last December, six people from an extended family in Bhopal, the capital of Madhya Pradesh state, were arrested after their maid committed suicide. The case has gone to trial.Police said the 19-year-old maid was accused of stealing an expensive watch and allegedly tortured by the family. Unable to take their abuse, she immolated herself.In June 2006, a 10-year-old maid, Sonu Salve, was raped by her employer’s son Rajesh Gajaria, 28, and later murdered by his older sister Roma Bhatia, 40, to ensure she did not complain about the incident.Roma, a mother of two, also confessed to previously sexually molesting the girl by inserting an iron rod in her private parts, after Sonu was caught using her make-up kit.