Cases of enslavement and torture of children working in homes come to shame Delhi time and again. In March last year, a 13-year-old’s employers, a doctor couple, locked her up in a flat for six days without adequate food and water and flew off to Bangkok for a holiday.
Last week, another story of cruelty played out in upscale Vasant Kunj. A domestic help was rescued with a deep gash on her head and bruises all over her body. Her alleged tormentor was a top official in a French engineering firm.
Abuse of domestic workers by “educated, affluent” families is not uncommon but few cases get reported. Each time such news hits the headlines, it extracts shock and disbelief from ‘people like us’, and some reaction from the government, only to be forgotten till the next case surfaces from another tony neighbourhood of the city.
This time though, we heard little from the government. Already in election mode, the state government stayed mum on why it failed to regulate the domestic workers sector despite a 2010 Delhi High Court directive to pass laws on placement agencies.
There are more than 3,000 placement agencies in Delhi, out of which 655 are registered under the Commercial Establishment Act. This registration is done without any checks and even the “certified” agencies are often found involved in human trafficking. Domestic workers form the largest sector of female employment in the cities. In Delhi, according to activist groups, nearly 75% of them are underage.
Enticed by the promise of a better life, which sometimes means as little as two meals and a few hundred rupees, thousands of girls are brought to Delhi and other metros from impoverished villages by agents who sell them to placement agencies. Voluntary groups working on child labour tell us that it is now more profitable and less risky for traffickers to employ young girls as domestic helps than to sell them to brothels for prostitution.
Yet, nothing has been done to break these cartels of organised crime. Last we heard from the government on this issue was when it invited suggestions and objections to a Bill to regulate the placement agencies in August 2012. In the absence of regulation, there is nothing to ensure basic welfare of a domestic help, not even a minimum wage. It is inexplicable why a law that can prevent such gross human rights violations has not got support from our political masters.
There is a blanket ban on employing a child below 14 years of age. Laws allow children between 14 and 18 years to work in non- hazardous sectors where they are supposed to do nothing more than be a helping hand to their parents after school hours. Domestic work falls in the hazardous category. The amendment to this effect was passed by the Cabinet last year. But in the absence of ratification by Parliament, these are mere guidelines to be followed by enforcement agencies.
For millions of impoverished families, more kids mean more working hands and extra earnings. The administration cannot penalise the poor parents. If they are put behind bars, their kids will anyway starve. But it can punish the placement agencies, which work as touts between the parents and employers. For that, it needs a regulatory framework, and more importantly, political will.
In a predominantly poor country, it is difficult to tackle the malady at its supply end. Heavy penalties and jail term, however, should be able to discourage demand for child labour as domestic helps. But we also need some soul searching. Employing an underage to do your household chores is not an act of philanthropy. If you are keen to give a better life to a child, fund her education.