Domestic helps to knock Modi’s door

PUBLISHED IN THE TIMES OF INDIA

NEW DELHI: Still in a daze, the mother of the 14-year-old maid found dead at a house in an upscale Gurgaon locality, in January, kept up her demand for justice. The postmortem has established sexual abuse though the girl’s employers alleged suicide. Her account of the unhelpful police—no one has been arrested—at a public meeting packed with domestic workers on Tuesday once again pressed home the need for a central legislation to regulate this sector.

Now, domestic workers, under the banner of National Platform for Domestic Workers, a group of NGOs, have decided to knock on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s door, asking for the pending legislation to be enacted. In the summer of 2013, thousands of domestic workers converged on the streets of Delhi, demanding a central law. They submitted a petition to committees in both Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha on July 31, 2013. The Congress-led UPA government had failed to enact the legislation and now, one and a half years later, men and women engaged in housework in cities are still waiting for their due.

The country is estimated to have over 50 million such workers. On Tuesday, household helps in the city came together to voice their concerns. The girl’s mother was among the workers who testified to the abuse and denial of workers’ rights before an eminent jury headed by the chairperson of the National Women’s Commission, Lalitha Kumaramangalam. Dr P M Nair, retd DIG (trafficking), now at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, and S C Srivastava of the National Labour Law Association were part of the jury. The organizer, NPDW, comprises trade unions and organizations of domestic workers from around the country. The participants who spoke were both full-time and part-time workers, including those trafficked for labour by individuals and unscrupulous placement agencies.

Besides a central legislation, NPDW also wants the ratification of the ILO Convention 189, Decent Work for Domestic Workers, which was passed in June 2011. The central law for domestic workers should regulate employment and work conditions, fix wages and hours, regulate placement agencies and provide a mechanism for resolution of disputes and protection of employment. Social protection provisions should include social security, health, education, childcare, housing, skill training and pensions, affirmed the NPDW.

Subhash Bhatnagar, activist and lead member of NPDW, said beginning with the Domestic Workers (Conditions of Employment) Bill, 1959, there’ve been many attempts to control this sector, but without success. The most recent attempt was the Domestic Workers (Conditions of Service) Bill, 2009. There still isn’t a central act to protect the largest and fastest-growing sector of employment for women in urban areas.

Jharkhand haats, melas hotbeds of traffickers

PUBLISHED IN THE TIMES OF INDIA – BY AMBIKA PANDIT

RANCHI: Wading past the surging devotees, Poonam Devi makes a desperate bid to reach a man walking a few metres ahead of her. Her struggle ends in vain as he disappears in the crowd out to witness the “rath yatra” that attracts thousands to the Jagannath temple every year in June-July. Tired and breathless, she stops to explain that he is the man who took her 14-year-old daughter away to Delhi without her knowledge. It has been a year and she has not heard from her.

The lone breadwinner for her seven children, Poonam is a widow who makes her living as a daily wage labourer. She came to the 300-year-old mela, which attracts both tribals and non-tribals, hoping to find the man who took her daughter away. Most traffickers are known to families one way or other. They either live in the same community or neighbouring villages. Often they operate through intermediaries in the villages. Oblivious to the evils of the larger world, gullible tribals are the softest targets.

Haat 3Over the years haats (weekly markets) and melas, such as the Jagannath chariot festival, have become hotbed of intermediaries and traffickers to track potential candidates. These huge gatherings are social platforms where boys and girls mingle. Targeted young girls are often lured with the promise of marriage and taken outside Jharkhand.

The presence of sleuths of the anti-human trafficking unit from Khunti district at the Jagannath mela further underlines the dangers confronting the youth from poverty-stricken villages of this region. Aradhna Singh, inspector, AHTU, Khunti said that the number of minors reported missing often increases after melas and haats.

Tribal women selling vegetables and other things at a weekly market. (Getty Images photo)

Tribal women selling vegetables and other things at a weekly market. (Getty Images photo)

Poonam said that the man who lured her daughter away had earlier taken her sons too. When the boys contacted her from Delhi she learnt that they were working as domestic helps. Estimates put domestic workers in India at 50 million. Delhi alone has an estimated 10 lakh workers. Most are migrants. There’s no law to regulate domestic work and placement agencies at the Central or state level.

The boys were not happy with the work condition and wanted to return. When she asked the trafficker to bring them back he was non-committal. Finally, she went to Delhi to bail them out of the mess. Before life could normalise, her daughter vanished from the house. It turned out, after a frenetic search that the same man had taken away her daughter too. Poonam now wants the Jharkhand police to catch the trafficker and punish him.

Walking past the stalls in the mela, even a mention of “Delhi” or a casual reference to trafficking invites angry stares from bystanders. A woman is overheard telling another fellow villager to be cautious and not to engage in any discussion with strangers on Delhi and domestic work.
At the sprawling mela, stalls peddle bows and arrows, iron utensils, fishing nets and bird cages made of bamboo. Villager Dileep Kumar, who makes a livelihood selling fishing nets, hesitantly shares his ordeal. He murmurs that his daughter too was taken to Delhi for work about a year ago and he has not heard from her since. Stark poverty drove her to seek work outside, he says. Worried to the bone, he seeks help to bring his daughter back.

Tribal painting on a wall of a house in a Jharkhand village. (Getty Images photo)

Tribal painting on a wall of a house in a Jharkhand village. (Getty Images photo)

Baidnath Kumar from NGO Diya Seva Sansthan admits that the problem is acute and emphasises on the need to create a state-police and NGO coordination mechanism. To that effect, a missing child helpline was set-up in October 2013. The NGO closely involved in rescue and rehabilitation of victims of trafficking is manning the helpline set-up by CID, Jharkhand. Based on calls received 128 cases of missing children have been registered since October last year. Most victims are girls. As many as 78 children were recovered following up complaints made on the helpline.

Kumar said that in 98% cases, the girls and boys are taken to Delhi followed by Mumbai, Pune and Goa. “Girls from this belt are also being pushed into prostitution by traffickers,” Kumar added.
Rishi kant from NGO Shakti Vahini who has been part of the teams that have rescued many tribal girls from Jharkhand in Delhi, particularly over the last two years, warns that more and more women and minor girls are being brought to Delhi for work by traffickers.

“Due to uneven development in states with substantial tribal population such as Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Bengal, Assam and Orissa, such migration of women and minor girls is on the rise,” he said. “The migration happens through unregulated placement agencies that often indulge in human trafficking,” he says.

NGOs working with domestic workers say trafficking in Delhi/NCR has grown over 10 years. “Many girls end up in exploitative circumstances and are treated as slaves. Placement agencies make huge profits and the victims never get salaries for their backbreaking work,” Rishi kant says.

Maid found hanging, no FIR after 3 days

Edited 736AMBIKA PANDIT IN THE TIMES OF INDIA

NEW DELHI: A tribal girl from West Bengal was found hanging from a grill in the courtyard of her employer’s house in Faridabad on April 14. She had a dog’s leash around her neck.

Till date, no FIR has been lodged in the case. While the police blame their helpless on the absence of a report, the girl’s body lies in a mortuary unclaimed. Attempts are on to track her family in Uttar Dinajpur and bring them to identify her.

The case, yet again, brings to the fore the rising cases of exploitation of domestic workers from tribal belts. In the absence of laws to regulate domestic work and placement agencies, these girls live and die without any identity or rights.

Police officials from Dabua Police Chowki of Saran police station had found the girl’s body in Sector 49 of Dabua Colony after her employers informed them. The employers told the police that the girl was hired on March 24 from Laxmi Placement Agency and she appeared to be depressed. But so far, no one has inquired into the alleged cause of depression or the girl’s employment history. The employers told police that it was a case of suicide. Police, however, has not initiated any inquiry to investigate the role of the employers in the case.

There is also no clarity on the girl’s age as she appears to be a minor. Preliminary inquiry shows that the girl was hired for a meager salary of Rs 3,500 to do the house work in a family of six members, police said, adding that the placement agency took around Rs 22,000 from the employers as commission.

Strangely, the placement agency owner has been tasked with the job of finding the girl’s family and bringing them to the police station. Meanwhile, the police officials say they are trying hard to keep the body from being eaten away by mice in the “dead house” where the freezer facility is not working properly and ice is being used to preserve the girl’s body.

While mystery shrouds the domestic worker’s death, NGO Shakti Vahini has written to the Faridabad police commissioner seeking an investigation into the matter from the point of view of inter-state human trafficking (West Bengal-Delhi-Haryana). “It is a matter of concern how the girl came in contact with the placement agency. What is the legal status of the agency? The girl’s age is also a matter of investigation,” the letter states.

Meanwhile, experts working on trafficking cases feel that much time has been wasted. Former member of National Commission for Protection of Child Rights, Vinod Tikoo, cited Section 174 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 to point out the role of police to enquire and report on suicide, and such matters.

As per the Code, a police officer has the power to inform an executive magistrate empowered to hold inquests. The police can also make a report on the basis of spot examination and preliminary investigation into cause of death to enable the district magistrate to act.

Brutalised migrants of western Odisha

PUBLISHED IN THE HINDU
The chopping off of the palms of two migrant workers is a wake-up call

The gruesome incident of the chopping off of the palms of two migrant labourers of Kalahandi district of western Odisha by the labour contractor mafia in December 2013 should serve as a wake-up call. The incident highlights the ruthless extent to which the mafia can go to meet its ends and brings home the fact that more than 60 years after Independence, the poorest in our country still remain woefully unprotected.

The incident took place after the workers, who had taken an advance from a labour contractor to work in the brick kilns of Hyderabad, got into a dispute with him regarding the payment and place of work. When the dispute could not be resolved, two of them had to pay this terrible price. Gruesome as it is in itself, the incident is but the proverbial tip of the iceberg of a sordid modern day version of human trafficking and the slave trade, exploiting the most vulnerable and robbing them of their dignity. Yes, the police have arrested some of those responsible and the administration has further taken action to stop migrants from going out. Unless more fundamental steps are taken, the impact of such punitive action is more than likely to be undone by the migrants themselves, who see no choice but to hit the migration trail.

Distress-induced

The Kalahandi-Bolangir-Koraput (KBK) region of western Odisha has long been known for all the wrong reasons — starvation deaths, drought, famines, poverty and distress, and, over the past six years or so, Maoism. With unproductive landholdings and very few means of sustenance, the rural poor are plunged into crisis every year. Their only option is to migrate to other States in search of work. Among the most favoured destinations for them are the brick kilns firing the construction boom in cities such as Hyderabad. A well-entrenched chain of labour contractors and middlemen, starting from dons based in Andhra Pradesh and going down to touts located in the interior villages of the KBK districts, organise the trafficking of labour from these villages to the cities. Every year, after the 60-day paddy crop is harvested around the beginning of September, comes the festival of nuakhai, meaning “eating new rice,” an old tradition of western Odisha. Poor families take an advance from the labour contractors at this time. Soon after, men, women and children start migrating in large numbers to pay off this advance by offering their labour to the contractors. A documentary produced by the National Consortium of Civil Society Organisations on MGNREGA movingly depicts the lives, journeys and choices of these families. They live on brick kiln sites in makeshift shanties, braving the harsh weather with no protection. With no toilets and no sources of drinking water, these sites are hotbeds of misery and disease. Sexual exploitation of women is rampant. On the journey, travelling with their belongings and children in overcrowded trains, people lose life and limb. Attempts to escape from the work site can meet with instant and ruthless reprisal as the two migrants found out. Children are preferred in the brickmaking industry because they are short, so while filling brickmaking frames with mud, they need not bend down like adults. Also, when freshly made bricks are piled up, there is no space for an adult to walk and overturn the bricks for drying. Children can walk on top of the bricks and overturn them without causing damage. So, the labour is contracted according to the traditional pathariya system, where pathariya is a work unit comprising a man, a woman and one or two children. And, in the process, every law of the land is violated to keep India shining.

A study carried out in Nuapada district of western Odisha, at the request of the district authorities some years ago, concluded that the out-migration is distress-induced. That this needed to be established may look ridiculous at first sight. But the significance of this conclusion cannot be underlined enough, for sadly, in government circles, an unwritten code prohibits acceptance of the distress nature of this migration. The logic is deadly simple — if this migration is accepted as distress-induced, the responsibility rests with the administration to stop it. The study further estimated that more than half the rural population in the district is migrant, with more than one-third of these migrants being women and about 13 per cent being children. This human trafficking fetches the touts, middlemen and mafia dons huge profits, with the turnover of the migration industry of western Odisha estimated to be more than Rs.500 crore per annum. An industry of this size cannot exist, let alone thrive, without the patronage of the powerful. And it is widely known in the area that political vested interests, cutting across party lines, are firmly behind this organised racket. No wonder then, that the study on Nuapada was dead before arrival! A look at the way migrant labour is forced to live at migration sites, however, should permanently put to rest any notion that these people will prefer to migrate if they actually have a choice. The point is that they migrate because they do not have a choice. And the tragedy is that being prisoners of circumstance, they too have started believing that this is indeed a choice they are making.

Toward sustainable livelihoods

But the work of several civil society organisations acting in close connect with these migrant families in Nuapada and Bolangir districts shows that given an alternative these people will never go back to “Hyderabad,” a synonym in their eyes of what can go terribly wrong with their lives. Such work also holds out the promise of the change that can be made to happen if the administration decides to muster the requisite will. These organisations have mobilised the rural poor to form MGNREGA wage-seeker committees. These committees try to ensure that MGNREGA plans are made according to priorities that the village community decides, that work is opened on time and wage payments are not delayed. Working closely with selected gram panchayats, these organisations have helped to create assets for sustainable livelihoods of the poor. The results, though on a small scale, are there for all to see. Farm ponds made at a modest cost of Rs.30,000 or so, have provided protective irrigation to the paddy crop and stopped distress migration for several hundred families, in some cases, reversing a trend which has been going on for two or three generations. Enterprising farmers have topped up this public investment with private investment and use the water remaining in the farm ponds after the harvest of the paddy crop for fish-farming and growing vegetables in their backyards. In some cases, community water harvesting structures have helped to give protective irrigation to several hundred acres of paddy fields downstream. Assured employment and timely wages have given workers the confidence that they can break the stranglehold of the contractors. The documentary referred to earlier, and screened in Bolangir and Nuapada districts in several village and panchayat meetings, helped to sensitise the administration and panchayat leaders to the fragile existence of these migrants. Officers with fire in their belly resolved to work hand-in-hand with civil society to leverage MGNREGA so as to stem this migration. In May 2013, the Odisha Panchayati Raj Department, after meetings with these migrant families, announced that the job guarantee would be extended to 150 days per family in the districts of Bolangir and Nuapada. Micro-plans for 150 villages were made with the support of civil society. But, tragically, the officers who had shown the courage to take on the mafia were soon transferred, giving credence to the belief that “big brother” is still all powerful.

But as these examples show, a lot can be done, with the requisite political and administrative will and imaginative partnerships with civil society. The State government needs to ensure that there are dedicated human resources to execute well-made MGNREGA and rural livelihood plans. A provision for this has been made through the Cluster Facilitation Teams provided for under MGNREGA 2.0. Without this capacity in place, extending the job guarantee beyond 100 days is unlikely to go very far. It further needs to work in mission mode for ensuring outcomes, for if employment opportunities or wage payments are delayed, the migrants will go back to the migration route. In its efforts, the government should partner with civil society to achieve better quality of outcomes. All this requires that the distress nature of this migration is first accepted. And that, in line with the recent Supreme Court ruling, officers are provided a minimum security of tenure so that the best of them may be chosen for the task of reconstructing rural Odisha.

(Pramathesh Ambasta is convener, National Consortium of Civil Society Organisations on MGNREGA.)

Punish employers for ill-treating domestic helps: MHA to police

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PUBLISHED IN THE HINDUSTAN TIMES

Ill-treating a domestic help will amount to trafficking, the home ministry’s latest directions to the police say. If the employer doesn’t give food or not allow the help to venture outside home, the action will be treat on a par with trafficking even if the employee is an adult.

“In a fresh circular, the ministry of home affairs has issued standard operating procedures to be followed by various agencies, including police, citing a Supreme Court order. So, if a person employs a child then he may not only face prosecution for provisions against child labour but also be punished for ill-treating the kid. Ill-treatment also includes denying minimum wages. This will tighten the strings on placement agencies, who gobble up at least half of the salary paid to domestic helps,” said Rishi Kant, executive director of Shakti Vahini, an NGO.

According to MHA’s guidelines, it is police’s duty to rescue a trafficked child and book the employer for not paying minimum wages, among other offences. The ministry has also asked the police to treat trafficking as an organised crime.

In 2012, 3,734 children employed as labourers were rescued from Delhi of which 2,357 were of below 14 years of age. “It is a growing problem and the police must try to curb trafficking by targeting the economics of crime syndicates. For instance, police must initiate the process of cancelling the licence of factory from where the child is rescued. Such steps can help prevent trafficking,” Rishi Kant added.

The police have also been asked to keep the rescued child away from the employers.

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