This couple was arrested...
India has an estimated 12.6 million child workers aged between 5 and 14 - a fifth of whom are domestic servants.
A 13-year-old girl found locked inside the apartment where she works as an unpaid, barely fed domestic servant, while her middle-class owners and their own child holiday in Thailand. It’s hardly surprising that this teenager’s story provoked outrage and front-page stories after her rescue in March.
But while the maid’s – or perhaps more accurately, slave’s – age might be one shocking facet of this story for a western reader, in India, her home, she was just one of an estimated 12.6 million child workers aged between 5 and 14, a fifth of whom are domestic servants of one sort or another. India’s under-14s are prohibited by law from working; but the country still has more child labourers than any other, according to the charity Unicef.
Meanwhile, it will come as a shock to no one that the servant was female. Among adults, women account for 83 per cent of domestic labour; but as more women join the workforce outside the home, girls are taking their place in the kitchens of the world’s growing middle class. More than twice as many girls as boys are engaged in domestic work.
Dr Sanjay Verma (L) and Dr Sumita Verma (R) are arrested at their home in Dwarka on April 4, 2012 in New Delhi, India. The couple were arrested for locking their 13-year-old maid in their house whilst they went to Thailand for a holiday.
These figures don’t exactly bode well for the status of women. “In India, if born in the right class, we consider it our right to be served, not merely with efficiency but with unquestioning obsequiousness,” wrote columnist Santosh Desai in the Times of India last year, noting the common perception that “those who provide service do so out of social inferiority rather than economic necessity.” This attitude, combined with the fact that domestic workers remain out of sight, puts servants at high risk of all types of abuse.
Economic necessity was, of course, why a 13-year-old maid found herself locked in the home of Sanjay and Sumita Verma – who, as doctors, you might have expected to have a little more compassion (or at least physiological understanding that their maid would need to eat during their week away). The girl’s uncle, who sent her to the employment agency in Delhi who sold her to the couple, reportedly told police he had sent her to find “a decent job”.
Employers often see themselves in the same light, as suppliers of cash, opportunities and a lifestyle that their staff wouldn’t otherwise experience. (The fact that their youthful servants are cheaper than adults would be, as well as more likely to be obedient and docile, might just have something to do with their choice of employees too.)
And while the 13 year old’s employers really were a front-page worthy pair of horrors, in less abusive working arrangements those employers might be right. If staff are treated well and the only other option for a child is starvation, domestic employment – which may involve sharp cooking knives, boiling water and hard graft, but will almost certainly be less dangerous than working in a factory or mine, for example – suddenly starts to look less awful.
As choices go, it’s not exactly an appealing one. But while this is the immediate-term reality for millions of children, the good news is that India’s economic development is making education available to more children, which in turn will lift the country’s economy. Last year, India voted in favour of the International Labour Organisation’s Convention Concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers, which seeks to recognise the labour rights of domestic workers and should help to regulate underage workers. And as affluence increases, points out Desai, “Domestic help is getting more expensive, and more difficult to find.” Children’s aspirations and opportunities are growing all the time, he writes. “What this will mean for those used to cheap and quiet service is another matter altogether.”