Child domestic workers are often exploited and ill-treated in the absence of protective laws.
Aditi Tandon recounts some harrowing tales and looks at the organisations helping to better their lot
Some time ago, Mumbai woke up to the heartbreaking news of a 15-year-old domestic worker being assaulted by her woman employer. The girl had a fracture in the skull; her head had been brutally shaven; her body frayed with knives and pens, and her back all blue and swollen from a prolonged contact with a heated surface.
Too bizarre as it was to be buried under the rhetoric of employers’ intolerance of a worker’s laziness, the case generated the required response. Neighbours testified against the employer and the volunteers of the National Domestic Workers Movement (NDWM) sprung into action to ensure the police acted for once.
Together they brought the exploiter to justice and provided succour to the victim who is still recovering from the trauma. Unfortunately, not all tales of child domestic workers’ exploitation meet such desired end.
There are several that are not told; still others that are told but not heard as the tale of 16-year-old Phulmati from Jharkhand. Her story serves as a reference point to the brutal exploitation of domestic workers in India. There are over 3 lakh estimated child domestic workers in Punjab, Haryana and Chandigarh and they have to be brought under the unorganised sector and guaranteed a semblance of rights.
The Supreme Court, in a landmark directive passed in November 2005, asked for the Draft Bill on Unorganised Workers to be modified to include domestic workers. Phulmati, and others like her, are unaware of the laws that might redress their grievances. Trafficked for forced labour by an unregistered agent from Jharkhand, she was sexually abused and tortured before she escaped from a dingy house in Panchkula (Haryana) on September 17 last year.
At a complete loss due to ignorance of the local language, she loitered around in Panchkula for three days before being rescued by the regional representative of the National Domestic Workers Movement (NDWM). Though her medical examination confirmed molestation, the abuser was not punished stringently.
Further investigations revealed that David Topo, the alleged violator, had been in the business of trafficking poor Jharkhand girls who were lured by the promise of good clothes, money and a secure home. NGOs working in the sector estimate that lakhs of children, especially girls, are trafficked every year for forced labour.
But the glossy dreams of these girls and boys are seldom fulfilled as they are forced into the never-ending cycle of menial labour sans monetary returns. Unrecognised as the domestic labour sector still is, there are no contracts binding on the employers. Force into a life of humiliation, there is no ceiling on working hours and no guaranteed rest for these children. More often than not, the unsuspecting child remains at the mercy of her employer who often pays the salary to the "evasive" agent.
At least 70 per cent of child domestic working in the northern region do not get regular salaries, according to surveys conducted by voluntary agencies. Sister Namrata, from the NDWM which addresses issues of domestic workers in Punjab, Haryana and Chandigarh says, "We have worked very hard to organise domestic workers, especially children, in this part of India. But our efforts are still at the nascent stage. We visit homes and slums to mobilise workers into groups so that their exploitation at the hands of agents and employers is minimised.
"But we still have a long way to go. Employers who register with us are supposed to pay a minimum salary of Rs 2500 to a domestic worker, notwithstanding his/her age. But of the estimated 3 lakh workers in Chandigarh, Panchkula and Mohali alone, we have a few hundreds registered with us."
The condition of girls is worse as they are traditionally seen to be easier to mould to suit the needs of the employer. Eighty per cent of child domestics working in the homes in developing countries are girls.
According to the International Labour Organisation, there are 250 million child workers in developing countries and domestic labour is the largest employment category for girls under the age of 16. Government and UN studies show that there are 43 million working children in South Asian countries. While it is difficult to count child domestic workers as they are dispersed and invisible, it is believed that about 5 million children are working as child domestics in the region, predominantly in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal.
A Unicef survey in India in 2000 reveals that almost one out of every five children under 14, working outside the family is a domestic child worker. Nearly 45 per cent of households above the poverty line in 18 main cities in Tamil Nadu employ domestic help and 10 per cent of these servants are children. Another study conducted in Chennai shows that 82 out of 100 domestic child workers in the city are girls.
While their numbers are on the increase in the wake of a crumbling joint family system in India and a high rate of employment among urban couples, these child domestic workers are paid much less than their adult counterparts. Sometimes they are not paid at all, as is the case with 14-year-old Radha (from Chhattisgarh) who worked in Delhi for eight months without earning a penny. After being relocated to Chandigarh, she is under the care of the NDWM. But her heart still craves for home and school.
"I have four sisters and two brothers. My parents worked as agricultural labour but could barely sustain us. I never knew I would end up in this mess", says Radha, who came to Delhi on a sightseeing tour with a man called Rajesh.
Accompanied by three more girls, she landed in captivity for a week before being made to work for a family in Delhi. After working without earning for nine months, Radha was trafficked to Punjab by another agent. But this time she got a caring home. It is another matter that she has still not received her salary since she started work in December last year. "Madam says she has deposited my money in a bank," says Radha.
Like other countless children trafficked from tribal areas of Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Bihar, Radha is not sure of her future. All she knows is that she was forced into labour by an agent who is "beyond the law". After a year and a half of forced labour, she has lost track of home and of everything it symbolised.
While Radha was tricked, several children are trafficked with the consent of parents. A fortnight ago, law-enforcing agencies in Amritsar rescued hundreds of such children. Most of them were from Bihar where extreme poverty survival strategies give impetus to the trend of domestic child labour, notwithstanding the dehumanising conditions into which trafficked children are forced.
The plight of Prabhjit Kaur, an 11-year-old maid employed at a home in Amritsar, is a case in point. On March 6 this year, she was admitted to Amritsar Civil Hospital with multiple bruises. She had been beaten up by her employer for "overbaking the chapatti". Like Prabhjit, 14-year-old Jasindha from Jharkhand also knows what it means to be a child domestic. Assaulted by employers in Panchkula, she was rescued some time ago.
Jasindha is now working for a family in Chandigarh. While some girls like Jasindha get lucky, others endure a lifetime of exploitation. Absence of protective laws makes matters worse for them. As Jeanne Devos, another volunteer in the field, observes, "The Catholic Bishop Conference of India Labour Commission organised the first survey of domestic workers way back in 1978. The voice of pain created concern in the hearts of many. In 1984, girls and women in Tamil Nadu spoke out their sufferings for the first time. Their stories were in sharp contrast to the explanations of employers who were convinced that domestic workers were lucky since they escaped poverty and slept in houses of upper middle class people. Workers, however, narrated stories about the absence of education, long hours of work and no rest, physical and sexual abuse."
After a long drawn out battle for the rights of domestic workers including childr
en, voluntary agencies saw a glimmer of hope in early 2000 when the UN Human Rights Commission declared domestic workers as a form of contemporary slavery. Soon after, Tamil Nadu included domestic workers in their unorganised workers group while Maharashtra published a code of conduct. Karnataka then published minimum wages for domestic workers and Kerala followed suit.
Such measures are however yet to see light of the day in most north Indian states where cases of physical/sexual abuse of child domestics go unreported. Minimum wages of child domestic workers and domestic workers in general are far from being fixed as is clear from numerous children working without salaries.
Ironically, in India as in most countries of South Asia, child labour law is applicable only in formal or registered factory units. The home-based and other small informal sectors are not covered by legislation leaving a massive gap in children’s rights (guaranteed by the Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989, which India has ratified) and the reality.