Sat, Dec 08, 2012 - Page 9 News List

Domestic servitude: The dark side of richer India

As India’s growing middle class drives demand for maids, rights groups are concerned over their treatment by traffickers, placement agencies and employers

By Nita Bhalla  /  TrustLaw, NEW DELHI

Illustration: June Hsu

Inside the crumbling housing estates of Shivaji Enclave, amid the boys playing cricket and housewives chatting from their balconies, winding staircases lead to places where lies a darker side to India’s economic boom.

Three months ago, police rescued Theresa Kerketa from one of these tiny two-roomed apartments. For four years, she was kept here by a placement agency for domestic maids, in between stints as a virtual slave to Delhi’s middle-class homes.

“They sent me many places — I don’t even know the names of the areas,” said Kerketa, 45, from a village in Chhattisgarh State in central India. “Fifteen days here, one month there. The placement agent kept making excuses and kept me working. She took all my salary.”

Often beaten and locked in the homes she was sent to, Kerketa was forced to work long hours and denied contact with her family. She was not informed when her father and husband died. The police eventually found her when a concerned relative went to a local charity, which traced the agency and rescued her together with the police.

Abuse of migrant maids from Africa and Asia in the Middle East and parts of Southeast Asia is commonly reported.

However, the story of Kerketa is the story of many maids and nannies in India, where a surging demand for domestic help is fueling a business that, in large part, thrives on human trafficking by unregulated placement agencies.

As long as there are no laws to regulate the placement agencies or even define the rights of India’s unofficially estimated 90 million domestic workers, both traffickers and employers may act with impunity, say child and women’s rights activists and government officials.

Activists say that offenses are on the rise and link this directly to the country’s economic boom over the last two decades.

“Demand for maids is increasing because of the rising incomes of families who now have money to pay for people to cook, clean and look after their children,” says Bhuwan Ribhu from Bachpan Bachao Andolan (Save the Childhood Movement), the charity that helped rescue Kerketa.

Economic reforms that began in the early 1990s have transformed the lifestyles of many Indian families. Now almost 30 percent of India’s 1.2 billion people are middle class and this is expected to surge to 45 percent by 2020.

Yet as people get wealthier, more women go out to work and more and more families live on their own without relatives to help them, the voracious demand for maids has outstripped supply.

BEHIND CLOSED DOORS

There are no reliable figures for how many people are trafficked for domestic servitude. The Indian government says 126,321 trafficked children were rescued from domestic work in 2011 to 2012, a rise of almost 27 percent from the previous year. Activists say if you include women over 18 years old, the figure could run into the hundreds of thousands.

The abuse is difficult to detect as it is hidden within average houses and apartments, and is under-reported, because victims are often too fearful to go to the police. There were 3,517 incidents relating to human trafficking in India last year, says the National Crime Records Bureau, compared to 3,422 the previous year.

Conviction rates for typical offenses related to trafficking — bonded labor, sexual exploitation, child labor and illegal confinement — are also low at around 20 percent. Cases can take up to two years to come to trial, by which time victims have returned home and cannot afford to return to come to court. Police investigations can be shoddy due to a lack of training and awareness about the seriousness of the crime.

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