The Devyani Khobragade affair has been an eye-opener for a host of reasons. Foremost has been the government’s continued indifference to the plight of millions of domestic workers within the country. Following the Khobragade incident and to save itself from further embarrassment that may arise out of similar situations, the Ministry of External Affairs is pushing a reluctant Finance ministry into conferring central government employee status to helps serving diplomats and officials in foreign countries. That same government urgency is missing when it comes to cruelty and exploitation that domestic workers in Indian households routinely face in the hands of their employers.
Three days ago a couple in Mira Road were arrested for torturing a 11-year-old girl whom they had bought from her parents in Uttar Pradesh. They had promised her parents that they would take good care of the child and even finance her education. What they did to her, instead, underscores the depths of human depravity. The girl was subjected to horrific physical abuse. She was gagged and locked up in the toilet till she fainted. On other occasions she had been forced to stand the entire night for not completing her chores. Sometimes as punishment she had to go without food. All of this would have never come to light if the girl who was working as a babysitter for the family hadn’t confided in a neighbour.
Though the traumatised girl is now being looked after by an NGO, and the police have booked the couple under various sections of the IPC, including Section 373 (buying minor for prostitution), it’s least likely to bring an end to what now appears to be a rampant phenomenon across India. In November a BSP MP, Dhananjay Singh, and his wife were arrested in Delhi for allegedly torturing a maid to death and beating another minor girl working for the family with rods and sticks. A month before that a girl was rescued from a Vasant Vihar flat in New Delhi after neighbours came to know of the bestial treatment that her employers meted out to her.
Forget decent wages, helps still do not enjoy the rights that workers in the organised sectors are entitled to, such as a weekly holiday and maternity benefits. They cannot even claim compensation for injuries sustained while working at their employers’ homes. The Domestic Workers Welfare and Social Security Act, 2010, Bill, drafted by the National Commission for Women, is still languishing in Parliament. A clear sign of the government’s inability to push through an important piece of legislation that would significantly improve the lot of millions, mostly women and children.
If implemented effectively, it would enable these people to enjoy the benefits that workers in the organised sector are already entitled to. Another bill to end the corrupt practices that placement agencies supplying domestic workers are accused of is also lying in cold storage. As of now, though the Centre has prohibited employment of minors in any industry, including households, it has hardly yielded results. In most cases of abuse, the victims are minors. The Mira Road case is, particularly, significant because it also involves trafficking. At the root of the buying and selling of human beings is poverty, which is exploited by placement agencies as well as individuals keen to source cheap labour.
What’s urgently needed is active government intervention in the form of legislation and its strict enforcement that will put an end to gross violations of labour laws and modern age slavery.