Welcome to India, a country with 18 million slaves

Two years ago, a man claiming to be an employment agent approached the mother of a 19-year-old woman with an offer: her daughter could work in a New Delhi household and send money home to her impoverished family.

The mother never received a rupee, and she didn’t see her daughter for two years, until she was freed two months ago after an intervention by the NGO, Chetanalaya.
 
“They never gave me my money. They said the agent has run away with it,” said the young woman, who cannot be named as she is a victim of human trafficking.
 
She finally realised she would never be paid, and managed to call her family who then got in touch with Chetanalaya. Representatives of the NGO contacted the family who was holding the woman, and they agreed to bring her to the police station where she was finally released. 
 
The woman is still too traumatised to speak about her experience in detail, but her story is all too common.
 
There are an estimated 18 million people enslaved in India, according to the annual Global Slavery Index, which was published last month by the Walk Free Foundation. That’s more than any other country and far outstrips China, which followed with about three million of the global total of 46 million people enslaved through “human trafficking, forced labour, debt bondage, forced or servile marriage or commercial sexual exploitation”.
 
Authorities in India recognise the problem, and the Ministry of Women and Child Development has written a new human trafficking law. But some civil society groups say the draft legislation is too focused on sex trafficking and doesn’t go far enough to protect enslaved domestic workers or crack down on employment agencies that sell women into domestic work with very little or no pay.
 

Not strict enough

 
Chetanalaya has liberated more than 800 enslaved domestic workers over the past 15 years, but that’s just a drop in the bucket, according to legal officer Gaurav Kumar Tomar. He reckons that many of the approximately 800,000 women who cook, clean, and care for children in homes in New Delhi are working without pay.
 
“I can guarantee that half of them are placed through these illegal agencies and trafficked,” he said. “They easily outnumber sex workers.” 
 
The draft legislation refers to the trafficking of women into sexual slavery, but it doesn’t mention domestic workers as a specific category of trafficked persons. It has also been criticised for restating a law that makes the registration of placement agencies compulsory, without addressing the continued evasion despite the existing law. 
 
In the case of the young woman who was rescued recently, for example, the agent disappeared after receiving an initial payment, and the family refused to pay her unless the agent returned. No one in the family has been charged, nor has the missing agent, and advocates say such cases very rarely result in criminal prosecutions.
 
Agencies frequently change their names and telephone numbers to avoid receiving complaints from the girls and women they’ve placed, said Kalai Selvi, a regional coordinator with the National Domestic Workers Association.
 
“The agent is given one lakh ($1,500) for the year, and if he sends the family 5,000 rupees ($75), they are happy,” said Selvi. “The child is basically sold to the owners.”
 

Government response

 
The draft law makes the registration of placement agencies compulsory.
 
“We will be developing rules that monitor where agents are getting the workers from, where these workers are being placed,” said Silky Grewal, a senior consultant at the ministry. 
 
While the legislation does not specifically refer to domestic workers, Grewal said they are already covered under the penal code, which refers to trafficking “for the purpose of servitude”.
 
That doesn’t go far enough for Tomar, of Chetanalaya.
 
“I have seen horrific cases where girls are enslaved for decades together, where they are not allowed to step out or speak to anyone else,” he said. “The new law must identify domestic workers to empower them.”
 
Civil society groups are preparing to submit their recommendations to the Ministry of Women and Child Development. An updated version of the law will then be sent to other relevant ministries for their input, and the legislation is expected to be debated in parliament this year.
 
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(PHOTO: A woman in India sits below anti-slavery graffiti that reads, "No more will we tolerate atrocity. We will claim our rights." Grace Forrest/Walk Free Foundation)