The arrest of an Indian MP's wife for allegedly torturing her maid to death and a recent report on global slavery has shed light on the need to protect the vulnerable.
The abuse and exploitation of domestic workers in India continues to rise in the absence of a law to safeguard their rights. The surging demand for such helps in middle-class households is not only motivating a business in human trafficking but also exposing the vulnerabilities of such workers.
Puja, 15, is still traumatized by the ordeal she underwent for the tortuous three months at the hands of a senior corporate executive in upscale south Delhi. With bite marks all over body and deep gashes on her head, Puja, who requested her real name not be used, says it is a miracle she is alive.
Shocking accounts of abuse
"I was beaten almost everyday. The injuries made me weak and often I was left to starve in the confines of the flat. On most occasions, Madam did not allow me to wear clothes so I would not escape," Puja told DW, as tears swelled up in her eyes.
"It was living hell and I curse the placement agency that put me there," adds Puja, who hails from the eastern state of Jharkhand, where a majority of helps hail from.
But providence smiled after an alert neighbor heard Puja's plaintive wails one late September evening. The police arrived and arrested her employer on charges of assault and illegal confinement. Puja was immediately sent to the hospital for treatment.
Barely had the dust settled on this incident when another case surfaced with equal if not more gravity last month. A 12-year-old girl who was continuously abused for a year was rescued after her employer, an airhostess with a national carrier, thrashed her regularly.
"I slept only for five hours and woke up at 8 a.m. to finish the household chores. She would be drunk at times and beat me up if I did not follow her instructions. I was too scared to complain," the young girl told the Child Welfare Board. The air-hostess was detained.
In the latest incident, the wife of a Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) parliamentarian was arrested in the capital on Tuesday for allegedly torturing her 17-year-old maid to death in the capital.
The assault on domestic workers has put the spotlight not only on the abuse of servants in Indian cities but has also underlined the indifference of society towards such violence.
Thousands of women and children from poor families who come from impoverished regions in the east and the north are employed as domestic helpers after being lured by unscrupulous placement agencies with the promise of better jobs and education.
Stories of abuse, torture and violence against this segment continues unabated in vast swathes of the country. Though India banned children under 14 from working as domestic servants in 2006, the rule is blatantly ignored and both boys and girls are trafficked from various states such as Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and West Bengal.
"Trafficking by agencies continues unchecked and this unsafe migration to big cities has led vulnerable children and women to forced labor. It is a vicious circle. Employers look for young children as they don't complain and can be exploited," Rishi Kant of the organization Shakti Vahini told DW.
His organization has been active in rescuing domestic workers and to date has saved over 600 children and women from being trafficked in Delhi.
Pressing need for legislation
While the demand for a national legislation to protect domestic helpers gets louder, the government has chosen to turn a deaf ear. A draft national policy for domestic workers has been on the backburner for several years and a consensus still seems elusive.
The draft policy, which has been worked out with NGOs and children's organizations, seeks to give workers the right to minimum wages, paid leave and regulated working hours, among others. It also proposes to bestow on them the right to form trade unions.
Moreover, India has yet to acknowledge domestic help as "workers" and has yet to ratify the Domestic Workers Convention 2011 adopted by the International Labour Organization treaty or adopt holistic protection to this workforce.
"Unless we act now, this modern slavery is only going to spiral and take more vicious forms. Legislation is the need of the hour and it has to be done fast," Nina Nayak, a member of the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights told DW.
The Walk Free Foundation's latest Global Slavery Index of 2013 that provides a ranking of 162 countries is an eye-opener; the study puts India at the top of the list with the largest estimated number of people in modern slavery - estimated between 13.3 and 14.7 million.
"By far the largest proportion of this problem is the exploitation of Indians citizens within India itself, particularly through debt bondage and bonded labor," the report states.