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NEW DELHI: 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 flats. 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.

But the story of Kerketa is the story of many maids and nannies in India, where a surging demand for domestic help is fuelling 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, according to child and women’s rights activists and government officials.

Activists say the offences are on the rise and link it 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 per cent of India’s 1.2 billion people are middle class and this is expected to surge to 45 per cent 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 2011/12, a rise of almost 27 per cent from the previous year.

Activists say if you include women over 18 years, 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 under-reported, because victims are often too fearful to go to the police. There were 3,517 incidents relating to human trafficking in India in 2011, says the National Crime Records Bureau, compared to 3,422 the previous year.

Conviction rates for typical offences related to trafficking – bonded labour, sexual exploitation, child labour and illegal confinement – are also low at around 20 per cent. 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.

Under pressure from civil society groups as well as media reports of cases of women and children trafficked not just to be maids, but also for prostitution and industrial labour, authorities have paid more attention in recent years.

In 2011, the government began setting up specialised anti-human trafficking units in police stations throughout the country.

There are now 225 units and another 110 due next year whose job it is to collect intelligence, maintain a database of offenders, investigate reports of missing persons and partner with charities in raids to rescue victims.

Parveen Kumari, director in charge of anti-trafficking at the ministry of home affairs, says so far, around 1,500 victims have been rescued from brick kilns, carpet weaving and embroidery factories, brothels, placement agencies and houses.

“We realise trafficking is a bigger issue now with greater demand for labour in the cities and these teams will help,” said Kumari. “The placement agencies are certainly under the radar.”

National headlines

The media is full of reports of minors and women lured from their villages by promises of a good life as maids in the cities. They are often sent by agencies to work in homes in Delhi, and its satellite towns such as Noida and Gurgaon, where they face a myriad of abuses.

In April, a 13-year-old maid heard crying for help from the balcony of a second floor flat in a residential complex in Delhi’s Dwarka area became a national cause célèbre.

The girl, from Jharkhand state, had been locked in for six days while her employers went holidaying in Thailand. She was starving and had bruises all over her body.

The child, who had been sold by a placement agency, is now in a government boarding school as her parents are too poor to look after her. The employers deny maltreatment, and the case is under investigation, said Shakti Vahini, the Delhi-based child rights charity which helped rescue her.

In October, the media reported the plight of a 16-year-old girl from Assam, who was also rescued by police and Shakti Vahini from a house in Delhi’s affluent Punjabi Bagh area. She had been kept inside the home for four years by her employer, a doctor. She said he would rape her and then give her emergency contraceptive pills. The doctor has disappeared.

One on every block

Groups like Save the Children and ActionAid estimate there are 2,300 placement agencies in Delhi alone, and less than one-sixth are legitimate.

“There are so many agencies and we hear so many stories, but we are not like that. We don’t keep the maids’ salaries and all are over 18,” said Purno Chander Das, owner of Das Nurse Bureau, which provides nurses and maids in Delhi’s Tughlakabad village.

The Das Nurse Bureau is registered with authorities - unlike many agencies operating from rented rooms or flats in slums or poorer neighbourhoods like Shivaji Enclave in west Delhi. It is often to these places that maids are brought until a job is found.

There are no signboards, but neighbors point out the apartments that house the agencies and talk of the comings and goings of girls who stay for one or two days before being taken away.

“There is at least one agency in every block,” says Rohit, a man in his twenties, who lives in one of scores of dilapidated government-built apartment blocks in Shivaji Enclave.

With a commission fee of up to 30,000 rupees ($550) and a maids’ monthly salary of up to 5,000 rupees ($90), an agency can make more than $1,500 annually for each girl, say anti-trafficking groups.

A ledger recovered after one police raid, shown by the charity Bachpan Bachao Andolan to Thomson Reuters Foundation, had the names, passport pictures and addresses of 111 girls from villages in far-away states like West Bengal, Jharkhand, Assam and Chhattisgarh, most of them minors.

The Delhi state government has written a draft bill to help regulate and monitor placement agencies and has invited civil society groups to provide feedback.

But anti-trafficking groups say what is really needed a country-wide law for these agencies, which are not just mushrooming in cities like Delhi but also Mumbai and other towns and cities.

The legislation would specify minimum wages, proper living and working conditions and a mechanism for financial redress for unpaid salaries. It would also specify that placement agencies keep updated record of all domestic workers which would subject to routine inspection by the labor department.

In the meantime, victims like Theresa Kerketa just want to warn others.

“The agencies and their brokers tell you lies. They trap you in the city where you have no money and know no one,” said Kerketa, now staying with a relative in a slum on the outskirts of south Delhi as she awaits compensation.

“I will go back and tell others. It is better to stay in your village, be beaten by your husband and live as a poor person, than come to the city and suffer at the hands of the rich.”

Comments (25) Closed

boldtalk Dec 05, 2012 03:52pm
Pakistan's obsession with India, come join our fedreration..on a second thought no stay away we want peace
Nitin Jadhav Dec 05, 2012 03:11pm
How is Pakistan any better or same?
Cyrus Howell Dec 05, 2012 11:13am
Too many lives in India are worthless. These poor Indian women falsely believe taking a job as a maid is better than starving. Ooops. Guessed wrong. How can these women help their families at home if they are never paid, and never in contact with them. Welcome to the real world of cruelty, pomposity, avarice and greed.
Aniket Dec 05, 2012 11:21am
India is a land of huge contradictions and this article rightly shows us the mirror to our 'other' side. Not that social equality in India is not moving forward - 30% of India was middle class in 2011 and this figure is expected to rise to 45% by 2020, which means that many less people are vulnerable to situations like these. There is no denying, however that we still have a very long way to go before the extent of problems like these can come down to an acceptable level. Silver Lining is that nobody is denying these issues and on the whole the condition of Social Equality is much better today than how it was earlier. It's really unfortunate that we have to live with certain very sad truths about ourselves.
naveen Dec 05, 2012 05:09am
but yu have to accept reality and the problem
v Dec 04, 2012 03:28pm
My house is on fire, so let me criticize my neighbor's crooked door.
Cyrus Howell Dec 05, 2012 11:08am
"Watch crime petrol sony tv where every 3rd episode is related to trafficking whether for prostitution or maid related work, or both.".
Devil Dec 05, 2012 01:45pm
Beg, put down that mirror and go back to your branch !!
Devil Dec 05, 2012 01:46pm
rofl !!! :-) Good One !!
second opinion Dec 04, 2012 06:33pm
Sad....but not surprising. That's the hypocracy visible in every section of life in India today. Nobody practises what he/she preaches. The lucky ones squeeze the underprivilaged in every possible way. An honest apprach is needed to tackle this shame. Will anybody in the Govt. listen?
Akoi Dec 05, 2012 09:29am
The article is absoultely true. If you don't believe watch crime petrol sony tv where every 3rd episode is related to trafficking weather for prostitution or maid related works. States like Jharkhand, Chattisgarh, Orrisa are the ones selling its population for such works. Sad but true!
Satish Kumar Chadha Dec 05, 2012 11:59am
The need for additional hands for household work is increased with rapid urbanization and both man and woman in family working outside. The migration of rural population for greener pastures to urban areas is providing additional hand for household work. Earlier such migration used to be by one to one contacts. Of late many placement agencies have sprung up in urban centers providing such help and with induction of such middlemen in business the crime rates have compounded. What needed is proper regulation of such placement agencies. The issue is addressing government and NGOs attention. It is a transitional phase and concerted efforts of society is required to eradicate such exploitation.
Ram Lakhani Dec 04, 2012 06:06pm
Let Modi come to legalise....Money is!
abhi Dec 05, 2012 12:36pm
this is really big issue. I saw couple of episode on crime petrol and it left me with really heavy heart. I don't know how can an educated well to do person can involve in such crime by treating their house-hold help as bonded labour. It is rediculous, such people should get good punishment.
A Rehman Khan Dec 05, 2012 05:30am
Exactly what you have been doing for so long with your neighbors, so don't complain. Moreover, report is from Reuters, and not from Dawn, very soon the hoax of shining india will meet its fate.
Cyrus Howell Dec 05, 2012 11:06am
Mohamed Soliman Dec 05, 2012 11:03am
This is sad but true. Poor are exploited around the world and in India too. Maids as young as 10-12 are hired and exploited. Same happens in entire ME especially for the people of S.Asia. Sri Lankans maids/domestic helps are punished by Arabs in Kuwait and people are exploited. We have to acknowledge it and do our best to stop it. It should not be hidden and it happens in every country and everyone must do their part to curb it.
Mandeep Dec 05, 2012 01:57pm
Super powers too have problems. Instead of finding solace in such things, you better watch out what is happening in your own backyard. There is more exploitation, discrimination and inequalities in the land of pure than a 'super power'.
Beg Dec 04, 2012 07:06pm
Look in the mirror before acting like a super power. And imitating monkey can not become a lion
Ahmed Sultan (Mumbai) Dec 05, 2012 09:40am
keep dreaming. next year with US aid you buy a limo
JP Singh Dec 05, 2012 04:04pm
Its nothing new - this has been happening for ages and will continue till poverty is not eradicated. The white people feel happy publishing these kind of reports about third world countries. The dont look inwards - spouse abuse and violence - date rapes - drunk rapes - incest ............its worse in some western countries
Abdullah Hussain Dec 05, 2012 07:02pm
This world has no or very little respect for poor. Poor can neither live peacefully nor die peacefully, this sounds very harsh but is true. The worst sufferers amongst the poor are mostly women & children. I feel really sorry & upset when I read about poor women & children being torture in their work place. The worst part is that the agents cash on their helplessness. Domestic harassment & sexual abuse further aggravate their sufferings to limit. I don't understand why we have become so paralyzed so as not to feel the agony of the poor maids.
Malone Dec 05, 2012 08:30pm
``its worse in some western countries''. And your source of information?
Ali Dec 06, 2012 04:42am
The underlying cause is top down corruption in third world countries, and legalized bribery in America. America is run by corporate fascist and special interests. 30 million Americans out of work, 7 million job unfilled due to lack of skills. Lack of skills happened over a period of time, because the corporations have been spending their training funds to pay the middle man to get the job done overseas. Corporations get tax breaks for sending the job overseas, thanks to the legalized bribe paid to congressmen. Lives of millions in third world countries is miserable because the top politicians are corrupt, the top level hierarchy is corrupt. otherwise, the public funds should be sufficient to take care of poor, and there should not be need for parents to send their children to child labor camps or prostitution.
Seriously! Dec 06, 2012 05:49am
The debate should be how to make things transparent, safer and easier for women who decide to as Maids locally and Abroad.....after all there is nothing wrong with work of any type for the individual, family, society and country! This will cut out abuse and underground activities!