x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Modern-day slaves trafficked as maids

India's economic boom has fuelled the rise of the middle class and with it, soaring demand for maids and nannies, but hundreds of thousands of women are being trafficked, held captive and abused.

Theresa Kerketa, 45, was working as a maid and later rescued by Bachpan Bachao Andolan (the Save the Childhood Movement), a charity which rescues victims of bonded labour.
Theresa Kerketa, 45, was working as a maid and later rescued by Bachpan Bachao Andolan (the Save the Childhood Movement), a charity which rescues victims of bonded labour.

NEW DELHI // Inside the crumbling housing estates of Shivaji Enclave, amid the boys playing cricket and housewives chatting on balconies, winding staircases lead to a darker side of India's economic boom.

Three months ago, police rescued Theresa Kerketa from one of these tiny, two-room flats. For four years, a placement agency for domestic maids kept her here in between stints as a virtual slave to Delhi's middle-class residents.

"They sent me many places. I don't even know the names of the areas," said Ms Kerketa, 45, from a village in Chhattisgarh. "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 homes, Ms Kerketa was forced to work long hours and denied contact with her family. She was not told when her father and husband died.

The police eventually found her when a concerned relative went to a charity, which traced the agency and rescued her.

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

But the story of Ms Kerketa is common to 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 such agencies or even define the rights of India's estimated 90 million domestic workers, both the traffickers and employers can act with impunity, say child and women's rights activists and government officials.

Activists warn that the offences are on the rise, linked directly to the country's economic boom over the past 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," said Bhuwan Ribhu from Bachpan Bachao Andolan, or Save the Childhood Movement, the charity that helped to rescue Ms 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 rise to 45 per cent by 2020.

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

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 on the previous year.

Activists say that if you include women above the age of 18, the figure could run into hundreds of thousands.

The abuse is difficult to detect as it is hidden within average houses and apartments, and underreported because victims are often too scared 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 with 3,422 the previous year. Conviction rates for offences related to trafficking - such as bonded labour, sexual exploitation, child labour and illegal confinement - are also low, at about 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 testify in court.

Police investigations can be shoddy because of a lack of training and awareness about the seriousness of the crime.

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

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 celebre.

The girl, from Jharkhand, had been locked in the flat for six days while her employers went on holiday 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 children's rights charity in Delhi that 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 for four years by her employer, a doctor who, she said, would rape her and then give her emergency contraceptive pills. He has disappeared.

Groups such as Save the Children and ActionAid estimate there are 2,300 placement agencies in Delhi alone, and less than fewer than one in six are legitimate.

There are no signs, but neighbours can 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," said Rohit, a man in his 20s who lives in one of many run-down government-built apartment blocks in Shivaji Enclave.

With a commission fee of up to 30,000 rupees (Dh2,000) and a maids' monthly salary of up to 5,000 rupees, an agency can make up to 90,000 rupees a year for each girl, say anti-trafficking groups.

The Delhi state government has written a draft bill to help regulate and monitor placement agencies and has asked civil-society groups forfeedback. But anti- trafficking groups say what is needed is nationwide laws for the agencies, which are also spreading in Mumbai and other 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 records of all domestic workers, with routine inspections by the labour department.

In the meantime, victims such as Theresa Kerketa, who is staying with a relative in a slum on the outskirts of south Delhi as she awaits compensation, just want to warn others.

"The agencies and their brokers tell you lies," she said. "They trap you in the city where you have no money and know no one.

"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."

* TrustLaw

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