Print edition : August 11, 2006

Child domestic workers are victims of various forms of abuse but the government is yet to come up with a law to protect their rights.

ANNIE ZAIDI in New Delhi

TWELVE-YEAR-OLD Sohail at Mukti Ashram, a transit hostel-cum-school for rescued children.-PICTURES: VINAY SINGH/COURTESY BACHPAN BACHAO ANDOLAN

BUBLI has learnt to laugh when she talks about her former employer Chandni and her impossible demands. "She worked at the airport and kept odd hours. Whether it was 3 a.m. or 4 a.m., I could not sleep until she left. At 5 a.m., I had to begin the day's chores again. As she got ready, I had to stand beside her, near the dressing table, holding her compact and lipsticks. She expected me to know which shade of lipstick she was going to wear each day. If I made a mistake, she'd hit me with anything that came to hand - broom, kitchen things. Or kicks and slaps."

If Bubli's mother had not paid her a visit on a day she was bleeding after one such session, and if a team of activists and the police had not come to her rescue, Bubli could easily have ended up like 10-year-old Sonu Kumar, who did not survive to narrate her experiences as a domestic help.

In late June, Sonu was tortured before she was killed - all because she was trying on a lipstick belonging to the `mistress'. Her employers in Mumbai were arrested for murder and, possibly, rape in early July. Public reaction to this instance of senseless brutality has been one of shock and disbelief. But a visit to Mukti Ashram, a transit hostel-cum-school for rescued children, serves to dispel the illusion that Sonu was the exception rather than the rule. Everyone here has a horror story to tell.

Most child workers are female (according to a study conducted by Save the Children in West Bengal and Jharkhand, 93 per cent of them were female), but the abuse, whether sexual, emotional or physical, extends equally to both boys and girls. One of the boys, 12-year-old Sohail, now at Mukti Ashram, narrated a tale of constant torture over a year and a half when he worked in the home of a medical doctor, in Madhuban Chowk in Delhi. "In winters, I got beaten more often because it was harder to get up; the doctor would drag me out of bed by the hair, and hit me with a lathi. He'd stop my meals as a punishment. When he left for work, his wife would take up the torment. They had promised to pay Rs.500 a month but brought it down to Rs.250 saying that I didn't work properly."

R.S. Chaurasia, general secretary of the South-Asian Coalition Against Child Servitude (SACCS), to which Mukti Ashram is affiliated, recalls worse instances. "I remember one little girl who worked in the home of a nurse employed at a government hospital. For small mistakes, she was made to stand in a plate full of diluted acid."

The SACCS campaign gained strength in 1997, with the case of Ashraf, a seven-year-old boy who worked in the house of an Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer. "He was beaten up because he drank some leftover milk. The case was brought to our notice and we took it up with the NHRC (National Human Rights Commission). After this, the NHRC wrote to the government suggesting that all government servants be prohibited from hiring domestic workers less than 14 years of age. The Central government issued a notice in this regard only two years later. Now, at least 18 States have a rule against employing minors."

Despite the order, instances of rape, mistreatment and even murder continue, showing the extreme vulnerability of live-in domestic workers. It is high time the government amended the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986, which is applicable only to 64 professions (13 occupations and 51 processes) that are deemed hazardous. Domestic work is not one of them.

Manabendra Ray of Save the Children, told Frontline: "We have rescued at least 1,000 kids in Kolkata itself and found at least 30-35 instances of abuse between 2004 and 2006. We believe that domestic work needs to be included among prohibited occupations for children. Our recent studies prove that domestic work is a dangerous and exploitative form of child labour."

The International Labour Organisation has defined (in ILO Convention 182) the `worst forms of child labour' as any work which by its nature, or the circumstances in which it is carried out, is likely to jeopardise the health, safety or morals of children. It also describes domestic work as a new form of slavery.

RESCUED DOMESTIC WORKERS at Mukti Ashram. Most child workers are female, but abuse, whether sexual, emotional or physical, extends equally to boys and girls.-

There are no exact figures available of the number of domestic workers, major or minor. SACCS estimates that there are at least five lakh child labourers in Delhi, of whom 50,000 are employed in homes. According to the National Domestic Workers Movement (NDWF), there are eight-crore domestic workers in India; but how many of them are minors is not known. However, the ILO estimates that domestic work accounts for anywhere between 20 and 40 per cent of all child labour worldwide.

Live-in workers are often treated as 24-hour slaves. Many employers do not let them even step out of the house. Part-time domestic workers are in a slightly better position. They are not on duty 24 hours a day, have access to their own families and friends, and can quit work when employers become abusive. However, there is a growing demand for live-in workers who can double up as `ayahs' or nurse-cum-companions for the elderly. To meet this demand, young girls and boys are often trafficked from the poorer districts of many States.

Not surprisingly, `placement agencies' have mushroomed in big cities in recent years. Neetha N., a researcher with the Centre for Women's Development Studies, told Frontline: "There are more than 500 placement agencies in Delhi alone. Of them, some 40-50 might be registered, but most don't even have offices. They just give out telephone numbers, so it is difficult to track them down. It is a highly commercial and informal enterprise. There is no contract of labour. The money is paid by the employer directly to the agent; workers must wait until the end of a year's service to get their money."

Underage girls who migrate to cities in search of work face a double threat. According to Sister Leona of the Domestic Workers' Forum (DWF), many of the girls are first raped by the placement agent. Reports show that at least two lakh girls in Delhi either have been trafficked or have migrated from Jharkhand, Orissa or West Bengal.

Subhash Bhatnagar, coordinator, Nirmala Niketan, a non-governmental orgnaisation, told Frontline: "From Bokaro district (Jharkhand) alone, three lakh girls have migrated or were trafficked, 40 per cent of whom were below 14. Their average annual earnings would be Rs.200 crores, of which they take home only half; the other half goes to the agencies. A separate law is needed to control trafficking, besides regulating working conditions."

Domestic workers are especially disadvantaged since they are not covered by laws such as the Industrial Disputes Act, the Equal Remuneration Act, or even the Minimum Wages Act. The Central government has been shying away from enacting any specific legislation for this group. A Domestic Workers (conditions of service) Bill was drafted as early as 1959 but was never enacted. The House Workers (conditions of service) Bill, 1989, was not enacted either.

In 2003, the Human Rights Law Network filed a petition in the Supreme Court on behalf of the NDWM, pointing out that legislation to protect domestic workers had been stalled time and again. According to lawyer Vipin Mathew Benjamin, the government had told the court that domestic workers would be covered by the forthcoming Unorganised Sector Workers' Bill, 2004. "The Supreme Court passed an order saying that all suggestions and demands could be put before a tripartite committee to deliberate on the draft of the Bill. Consultations with all stakeholders were to be held at the Central and State levels. We don't have a problem if this bill is comprehensive," he said.

The order, passed on April 7, had directed the proposed tripartite committee to meet within three months but so far there has been no sign of such a meeting, nor have any suggestions been invited.

The Centre claims that the Unorganised Sector Workers' Bill would ensure their `safety, social security, health and welfare' but already there are protests from various quarters. According to Bhatnagar, who is also coordinating the National Campaign Committee for Unorganised Sector Workers, there are no fewer than five versions of the draft Bill. The one put up by the Union Labour Ministry has come in for heavy criticism. In a letter to the Prime Minister, Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer, former Judge of the Supreme Court, called it a `a half-baked law' and said that rushing it through Parliament would be `a gross betrayal'.

Meanwhile, domestic workers are organising themselves. As a result, the Domestic Workers (Protection of Rights) Bill, 2003, has been tabled in the Maharashtra Assembly, while Karnataka has been persuaded to extend the Minimum Wages Act to domestic work. Legal provisions exist to ensure that a child under 14 can be made to work for only two hours on school days and up to seven hours on non-school days. The law implies that the child must be at school at any rate, working or not.

Activists are tackling the problem in their own way. The DWF organises visits to tribal districts of targeted States, and stages street plays to discourage migration. But if a girl migrates, the DWF sees to it that she is placed in a transit hostel until she can find work. Sister Leona said: "We negotiate on their behalf - Rs.1,500 for a live-in worker; Rs.2,000 for trained girls, and Rs.3,000 if the job involves taking care of the elderly or babies. Also, one month's paid leave and one weekly off. Employers have to fill in forms and sign contracts."

The Gharkamgar Molkarni Sangathan, affiliated to the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC), depends heavily on anganwadi workers to organise women living in slums. Save the Children in West Bengal works closely with panchayati raj institutions, setting up anti-trafficking committees in villages.

Ray said: "Eighteen villages in West Bengal have been declared child domestic labour-free; 100 per cent of girls here are in schools. College students play a very active role and have helped us crack at least 18 trafficking rackets in the State. The other effort is to sensitise employers themselves. Until the child labour law can be extended to domestic work, we must create model employers who respect the child's right to education and association. There are 18 active employer groups in Kolkata."

However, not all employers live up to the ideal. It is up to the Centre now to protect these vulnerable children, for any one of them could be in a situation as dangerous and as helpless as Sonu Kumar's.

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