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There is no data available on domestic helps

Ravi Kant , President Shakti VahiniPUBLISHED IN THE SUNDAY INDIAN

What is the estimated number of people working as domestic servants/helps in India?

There are no estimates. Since it is an unorganised sector there is no data available on this.

Any guess estimates?

In Delhi and NCR region, noveau rich and urban middle class people employ domestic helps. Our guess estimate runs into lakhs for Delhi and NCR alone.

What about the Census of India or NSSO?

NSSO has data but not segregated as domestic helps.

At regular intervals horrific cases of abuses against domestic helps surface. Has maid-battering become a hobby?

We have to understand a few things. It is very cheap labour. Secondly it is purely a master-servant relationship and there is no dignity for those who do menial jobs. It is urban feudalism, an old mentality of ill treating servants.

What are ordeals faced by ordinary domestic helps?

It begins with verbal abuse and extends to extremes. First there are no minimum wages. Maids we have rescued don’t even get Rs 1,000 as minimum wages. There is no fixed timing of work, maids begin to work from six in the morning and are expected to stretch till late nights. Other kinds of abuse can be physical and sexual.

 Are these cases a matter of normal course or are they aberrations?

 In all cases where the Shakti Vahini has intervened we have found physical abuse rampant. Maid servants have also complained about sexual exploitation.

Whom do aggrieved domestic workers approach?

There is no redressal mechanism

How do domestic servants reach Delhi and NCR?

Mostly through the ‘kamwali’ already working in the household or neighbourhood and through their recommendations. Then there are placement agencies. We need to understand domestic servants can be categorised into two kinds. One is the kamwali, who cleans and mops your apartment, cleans utensil or washes clothes for an hour or two every day. They are local. They work in more than one household, taking up multiple chores. They are far more independent, understand the market and people well. The other are maid servants who are trafficked or supplied through the placement agencies and work 24X7. They are exploited.

What is the legal protection for domestic workers in India?

 There are no specific laws governing domestic workers in India. In collaboration with civil society, the National Commission for Women had come up with recommendations and had finalised a bill. It was forwarded to the government. But NCW has only recommendatory powers. The government never took it up. There was a discussion in the Union Home Ministry on a law for domestic workers. In 2012, it was shelved. Instead they included the social security aspect Rashtriya Swasth Bima Yojana medical insurance.

How far do these amount to denial of basic human rights?

Yes very much. They cannot go to police or take legal help as formalities are involved. Here too they are exploited and are not hopeful of justice as their employers have better access, status and money power. Lots of cases are hushed up. Two minor girls who were procured by placement agencies were battered and abused by employers. When the case surfaced with their death it was hushed up. In many cases, maids have committed suicides.

Shakti Vahini is working for more than a decade.

There are two ways of working- one is at preventive level in villages. We have projects in Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh. The other is to work with the police at the cutting edge level to expose real exploitation. We utilise our cases to generate maximum publicity, to educate, organise and agitate and to bring legislation to secure domestic servants. We did it with the Dwarka doctor couple case. At Vandana Dhir’s home, we rescued the minor girl because she would have died. Dhir was arrested last month after police filed a case under various sections of the IPC and under the provisions of the Bonded Labour Act.

 What is the compensation to victims and are employers punished?

 Our intervention is limited to prevention and creating awareness and getting cases registered. There is no compensation. The Justice Verma Commission report went into trafficking issues. That is why we got a section of Article 370 amended. Placement agencies too have been brought into its ambit with a minimum of five years and maximum of life imprisonment.

Is Shakti Vahini fighting a lost cause?

 It is not a lost cause. We have created a public debate. We cannot stop trafficking as there is huge demand. A lot of these maids come from poor areas – it is issue of sustaining self and family back home. But they are not aware of inhuman exploitation. Our interventions are limited that basic  human rights are non-negotiable. We have to ensure that migrations and work place become safe.

How can it happen in the absence of adequate laws?

I agree that laws for protection of domestic servants have been ignored. But we have to create public awareness. We, the NGOs, have demanded that the Delhi government’s draft bill is limited to placement agencies. Despite being put up for objections and suggestions in August 2012, it is nowhere close to becoming law. Various surveys by voluntary organizations show that there are more than 2,000 placement agencies in the capital and nearly half of these engage tribal girls from Jharkhand. The bill was initially delayed by a debate over increasing its scope beyond domestic workers engaged by placement agencies. Finally, it was agreed to restrict the bill to placement agencies.

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