Surging demand for domestic help fuelling human trafficking in country
Economic growth of the past two decades has transformed the lifestyles of many families in the country. Now, almost 30 percent of the country's over 1.2 billion people are middle class and this number 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.
The surging demand for domestic help in such families is fuelling a business that largely thrives on human trafficking by unregulated placement agencies.
Often from poor and rural backgrounds, women were given false promises of a better life.
Last month, police carried out a raid at a suspected placement agency in a residential area in New Delhi, rescuing around 20 women, mainly from West Bengal.
"These domestic helps are here just like slaves of the eighteenth century. No one cares about them. They are assaulted, they are physically abused, their wages are withheld, they are not allowed to talk and meet their parents even if they come. This is the condition of the girls," said R. S. Chaurasia, chairperson of Bachpan Bachao Andolan.
Forty five-year-old Theresa Kerketa moved to New Delhi to find work in the hope of sending her earnings back to her impoverished family in Chhattisgarh.
But for four years, she was forced to live like a slave. Used by a placement agency, she was sent to countless middle class homes where she was beaten, fed scraps and didn't receive a penny of her salary.
Three months ago, Theresa was rescued after a concerned relative went to a local charity, but she is near to tears as she recalls her time at one house she was sent to by her former agent.
Activists say they have also come across cases in which women and children had been sexually abused.
Abuse of migrant maids from Africa and Asia in the Middle East and parts of Southeast Asia is commonly reported.
But now similar crimes against domestic maids are on the rise in India.
The abuse is difficult to detect as it takes place behind closed doors and victims are often too scared to go to the police. When it is reported, police investigations can be shoddy because of a lack of training and awareness about the seriousness of the crime.
But over the past few years, the authorities have begun to pay more attention. Specialized anti-human trafficking units in police stations have now been set up across the country to collect intelligence, maintain a database of offenders and to carry out raids to rescue victims.
Unofficial estimates put the number of domestic workers in India at 90 million, and with an expanding middle class with more disposable income, this number is expected to rise.
Groups like 'Save the Children' and 'ActionAid' estimate there are over 2000 placement agencies in New Delhi alone, and only fractions are legitimate.
Often they operate from rooms or flats in slums or poorer neighbourhoods in which maids are housed until a job is found.
Earlier this year, the Delhi Government drafted a bill to help, regulate and monitor agencies, but activists say in its current state the legislation fails to offer welfare measures and completely ignores the fact that thousands of children are hired.
"This bill, I feel, is drafted from the employer's viewpoint to make them feel safe from hiring a domestic help from an agency which has accreditation from the government. It is not looking towards the issues and problems of the domestic workers that they face, be it abuse, be it beaten up or maybe their wages are not paid. And it is not even acknowledging the fact that there are thousands of children working in homes as domestic help," said Avinash K. Singh, programme co-ordinator at Save the children.
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 labour department.
There are no reliable figures for how many people are trafficked for, but activists say if women over 18 years were included, the figure could run into the hundreds of thousands.
The government says 126,321 trafficked children were rescued from domestic work during 2011-12, a rise of almost 27 percent from the previous year.