Benglauru's shame: Abuse of domestic workers in middle class homes

Some migrants who are live-in workers don’t even know which city they are in
Benglauru's shame: Abuse of domestic workers in middle class homes
Benglauru's shame: Abuse of domestic workers in middle class homes

Bonded labour is banned in India, but it has found new homes – the houses of many middle-class people, who have been accused of torturing young children and women and making them work in inhuman conditions.

In August 2014, a techie couple was arrested from their residence in a posh locality of Bengaluru for thrashing a minor girl whom they had brought from their hometown Darjeeling. The couple regularly tied her hands and legs before beating the 13-year-old girl. In their supposed defence, the couple claimed the girl used to steal food from the house.

The incident came to light when the couple took the minor to the hospital claiming that she had collapsed and lost consciousness after an epileptic fit. Looking at the bruises on her face and the blood clots on her head, the doctors realised that she had been tortured.

Scale of the situation

This could be happening in your neighbourhood too.

Bengaluru-based NGO Stree Jagruti Samiti says it gets two cases of domestic workers who are abused by ‘well-educated families’ every month. The abuse can be verbal, physical and sexual in nature. Most of these workers are young or middle-aged women, and could be minors too, sometimes. Some of them could have been trafficked as well. 

But physical or sexual abuse is not the only problem that domestic workers face. According to state-wide domestic workers’ group Karnataka Gruha Karmikara Sangha (KGKS), in the past one year alone, there have been six cases of false theft allegations, four of wage disputes, and two of sexual harassment in Bengaluru. 

Formed in 1985 by women and Dalit rights activist Ruth Manorama, KGKS organises these workers into a union. Out of the estimated three lakh domestic workers in the city, the organisation has tried to bring most under its wing, says Shahtaj, a coordinator.  

Meena, treasurer of KGKS said, “In one of the cases, a man sold his mother’s jewellery to get money to buy drugs, but conveniently blamed the domestic help. Police really tortured her. No one bails them out.”

Besides providing legal assistance, KGKS also looks after workers in several other ways. General secretary of KGKS Arpuda Mary said they once dealt with the case of a 17-year-old girl who was being constantly harassed by an ex-serviceman. He would fondle her private parts, and flash at her when she was cleaning the rooms.

The girl was in a fix when the man’s wife refused to believe her. Although the organisation managed to get compensation for her, there was no relief for the torture that she had endured. “She required counselling and medical help for a long time,” Arpuda said.

Placement agencies

A complex web of people and varied reasons result in the situation that many minor and adult domestic workers find themselves in.

Head of Bengaluru-based women’s group Stree Jagruti Samiti Geetha Menon, says that placement agencies are the biggest culprits in creating this situation. Sometimes people actively seek domestic work in alien cities where people speak strange languages due to lack of employment or remunerative income in their own villages.

However, she adds that poverty was not the sole reason for women to take up these jobs. She says that domestic work has also become bonded labour for many people.

“Although people from villages are educated now, the feudal mentality remains. They bring children of the workers back home and make them work for them here. Sometimes people also get their poor relatives to work for them,” she says, adding that yet others come to the cities through word of mouth.

Migrants and workers’ unions

Darshana Mitra, a lawyer with Alternative Law Forum, who has handled abuse cases, says that so far this year, the Forum had dealt with six cases of violence against minor domestic workers.

“A majority of them are from other states. Most of them are brought to the city at a very young age. They are alien to the place, language and culture. Only a small percentage of them manage to get any help at all,” says Darshana.

In August, a 17-year-old girl from Siliguri, who was working in Mysuru, was tortured verbally and physically by her employers.

“The police station informed us about her. She came with cuts around her neck, pinch marks on her hand – to put it plainly, she looked shattered,” says Richard, a social worker at the Samiti.

The daughter of a plantation worker, she was only 14 when she was taken from Siliguri to New Delhi by a placement agency in the capital. Her first job was filled with torture. Eventually, another placement agency based out of Mysuru brought her to the city.

None of this was communicated to her parents. Asked about her whereabouts today, Geetha says, “What do we send her back to? There is utter poverty back home. She is now at the reception center at a government hospital in Bengaluru.” 

Richard says that some migrants who are live-in workers don’t even know which city they are in, because they are permanently confined within the four walls of their employers’ houses.

In Geetha’s experience, when an abused worker turns up at a police station, the police don’t even register a complaint. When there is such a lax law and order system, one thing that really helps is forming a union. “At least police take their complaints when they claim that they are part of a worker’s union,” Geetha says.   

In 2012, Stree Jagruti Samiti began a campaign to issue identity cards to domestic workers. They are also trying to build a database of workers.

“That way when an issue or a case comes up, they are not merely seen as a criminal or a poor person. Many of these cases go unreported because there is no framework of any laws that protect them. And even if they do, the general recourse is the Indian Penal Code or Criminal Procedure Code,” says Geetha. 

Stree Jagruti Samiti has been simultaneously fighting for registration of domestic workers with the labour department. They are demanding a mechanism – a Workers’ Facilitation Centre – that would provide social security for unorganised workers. 

Rehabilitation, healing, and the law

The Stree Jagruti Samiti runs a rehabilitation centre in Arekere in Bengaluru. “These centres act as healing centers and transit points. We receive a few cases bordering on depression for which we offer psychosocial rehab services. We help if they need legal services, travel, to find another job etc.” The girl from Siliguri spent some time here before the NGO found her a job with the government hospital.

Although non-governmental organisations help in rescue and rehabilitation, almost all of them face roadblocks when it comes to trials. While the cases of abused adult workers fall under the jurisdiction of the labour department, cases of minor workers are referred to the district child welfare committees (CWC).

There is hardly any provision for legal trials of the employers. Many cases are closed after compensation specified by the CWC or labour department, is handed out.

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