Dial-a-maid, get-a-slave in middle class India
When I arrived in India some years back as a single mother and full-time journalist, there was one thing I knew I wouldn’t have to worry about – finding domestic help.
Maids, nannies, drivers, cooks and cleaners are ten-a-penny amongst the urban middle classes here.
In New Delhi’s neighbourhoods, for example, most families employ full- or part-time help, who do everything from feeding and bathing babies and cooking family meals to sweeping and washing floors.
These are often young, uneducated women from impoverished villages hundreds of miles away, trying to earn money to support their families back home.
So when a friend handed me the phone number of a placement agency which would help me find a live-in nanny, I didn’t think twice.
The man on the other end of the line was professional, but perhaps a little too eager. Even before I had finished explaining my specific requirements, he wanted a time and place to meet.
“We have many girls here,” he said in Hindi. “It won’t be a problem finding what you want.”
By the end of the day, the man from the agency had delivered my new nanny on the back of his motorbike.
Some questions were asked, official I.D. cards shown and a less than basic contract signed. I handed over a large wad of rupee notes to him as per their “commission fee.”
I remember thinking it seemed a little too quick, a little too easy. But I brushed off my reservations given that I was new to the experience of hiring domestic help in India.
During the four weeks that my new nanny, Parul, stayed with me, my concerns about her circumstances and how she came to work for me increased.
She was a shy, young woman in her early 20s from a village in India’s state of West Bengal, bordering Bangladesh. She said she had been to primary school, but could not read or write.
Parul spoke little of her personal life and evaded questions about her family, and would often just become withdrawn when asked how she came to New Delhi from such a remote place.
On her Sundays off, the same man from the agency would come on his motorbike in the morning to pick her up and dropped her home at night.
I found it strange that she went to the agency on her holidays, and that she didn’t have any friends or family in Delhi or other things to do during her time off.
The man from the agency was always there in the background – either calling her up several times during the day or hanging around outside the house during her free time.
It was a month before I realised the young woman living in my house was a victim of human trafficking. It was when the placement agent man demanded I hand over Parul’s first monthly earnings to him.
“This is the process here in India. The agency keeps their salaries safe for them every month and they get the whole amount after the contract ends when they go home to their villages,” he explained.
“These maids don’t need any money anyway. You are providing food and lodging. If they need, they can ask the agency and we will give them.”
When I refused, he got angry, grabbed Parul’s arm and stormed out with her.
I never saw her again.
Having been reporting on women’s rights issues in South Asia for some years, I now see I was unknowingly complicit in a multi-billion dollar trade, which buys and sells people – often children and women – for sex work, domestic and industrial labour, forced marriage as well as for their organs.
In India, the supply chain often starts in the poverty-stricken villages of states like Bihar, West Bengal, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand where female traffickers convince vulnerable families to send their daughters and sons to the cities with the promise of good jobs.
The children and women are passed onto men, who bring them in groups on trains and buses to towns and cities where a growing middle class – doctors, lawyers, teachers, civil servants, businessmen, IT professionals – are looking for no fuss, cheap, efficient live-in labour.
In many cases, victims go to placement agencies – often a decrepit, rented room or flat – where they stay with little freedom until the phone rings and an unsuspecting customer like me orders a maid.
The lack of freedom, the constant guard and harassment of the young woman, and the withholding of her income (which they often do not receive or only in part) are all violations of their human rights and amount to bonded labour. In fact, some victims never return home.
But it also India’s middle classes, employers like me, who are complicit – knowingly or unknowingly – by allowing these agencies to continue to control the young woman’s life, or even worse, by exploiting her further.
There have been numerous reports of employers mistreating their domestic workers – not paying them or providing them with proper food and shelter, making them work long hours with no holidays and even locking them up when holidaying.
When I hear these stories, I feel a sense of shame.
Shame that I did not do enough to save my nanny, but also shame that the modern society we within is not asking enough about the women who live and work in our homes, and who are, effectively, part of our families.
PHOTO: Theresa Kerketa, 45 year old, poses for a picture at her residence on the outskirts of New Delhi on November 2, 2012. Kerketa was working as a maid and later rescued by Bachpan Bachao Andolan (Save the Childhood Movement), a charity which rescues victims of bonded labour. REUTERS/Mansi Thapliyal