The shocking story of a 13-year-old domestic help from Dwarka, locked up in a flat for six days without food by a doctor couple who went on a holiday to Thailand, has shamed the capital. But abuse of domestic workers by "educated, upper-class" families is not uncommon. Only a few cases get reported.
Enslavement and torture of such kind must be punished with an intimidating jail term and nothing less. The "upper class" tormentors should be treated like common criminals and be disgraced in their neighbourhood, workplace and peer groups.
The 13-year-old rescued from Dwarka was brought to the big bad city by a placement agency through her uncle from a Jharkhand village. Once she was sent to work, nobody checked on her. Lured with promises of a better life or simply abducted from impoverished villages of eastern and central India, thousands like her end up as bonded labourers in our cities.
There are around 2,300 placement agencies in Delhi, out of which 325 are registered under the Shops and Establishment Act. This registration is voluntary, 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 60% of them are child labour or younger than 14 years.
The large and unorganised workforce slips through the cracks of labour laws that cover workers above the age of 18. There is no law to bind employers to pay a minimum wage or to ensure basic welfare if a domestic help is below 14 years, the legal age for employment in non-hazardous sectors.
Our laws are good. They ban child labour, torture, trafficking and even make it mandatory that all children be sent to school. At least 1,000 child workers are rescued every year in Delhi. Legal provisions for rehabilitation demand these kids are sent to schools and their families provided with earning assets. But such imperatives often get lost in establishing whose responsibility these kids are: Delhi, where they were rescued from, or the state where they were 'sourced' from? But rehab, even when proper, is only a mopping up exercise. Child labourers come from very poor families who opt for far too many kids for their means. Not necessarily because they are ignorant. Even after six decades of independence and two decades of economic liberalisation, the concept of human resource is understood by a vast majority of Indians in simple arithmetic.
So for millions of impoverished Indians, more kids mean more working hands and extra earnings. Of course, it is illegal to send kids to work. But the administration cannot fine the poor parents. If they are put behind bars, their kids will anyway suffer. The only remedy is to discourage demand for child labour. If there is no one to employ their little ones, it will not make sense to poor parents to go on having kids and stretch their meagre reso-urces. It will also help meet the family planning targets.
How to do it? By rewriting the law with heavy penalties and intimidating jail terms -- instead of the existing provision of a mere one-year term -- for those who employ child labour, recognising the crime as human trafficking; and by implementing the law, for once, on the ground.
The unorganised domestic help sector, meanwhile, better get organised. Business as usual makes both employers and employees vulnerable. They should be open to having their conduct and records scrutinised regularly by government agencies and NGOs. This will ensure minimum wages and welfare, and also safeguard against robberies and murders.