Sunita, 20, worked as a maid in a Delhi home - until she was raped by one of the young men in the house. The family prevented her from going to the police; and when Sunita discovered she was pregnant, they gave her Rs 50,000 as 'compensation' and asked her to go back to her village.

Raji, 10, is a domestic worker in a Delhi household. She is beaten with a broom every time she makes a small mistake. Rashida's employer hit her so hard with a spoon that her front teeth broke.

Many such horrific stories were narrated recently by women and children at a public hearing organised in Delhi by the Human Rights Law Network (HRLN), the National Domestic Workers Movement (NDWM) and the National Commission for Women (NCW). The Delhi hearing was part of a series of public hearings planned across the country to raise awareness and to restore dignity and justice to domestic workers - the "invisible workforce" of our country.

According to HRLN, there are over 1.5 million domestic workers in India. At the Delhi hearing, 21 domestic workers (some as young as eight years old) talked about their lives as servants. Savita, 10, was made to sleep on the floor in winter with no warm bedding. Rabia, 15, was sexually abused, both by her employer and his driver. The women and children recounted how they were given stale food to eat and torn clothes to wear even in rich homes.

Women and children who work as domestic workers come from states that are very poor and backward. Once in the city, many are placed in homes known to the people who have brought them from their villages.

Some women, however, seek employment through 'placement agencies' - many of which also run as contact points for trafficked women. According to HRLN, women stay shackled to abusive employers due to the terms of their contract with the agencies. There are over 500 placement agencies in Delhi itself, and each one has its own terms and conditions.

Sometimes, agencies make the women sign a contract that binds them to a family for a minimum of 11 months. If the women don't keep to their part of the deal, they have to forego three months salary. In some cases, HRLN says, the agency keeps the entire salary of the women, claiming that they will hand over the total amount when they leave for home.

However, some agencies in Delhi and elsewhere are trying to improve the situation for the women. They insist that they get one day off in a week and are given proper accommodation. Yet, the media continues to report harrowing tales of how domestic workers are exploited in the cities by the agencies and employers.

In recent years, Delhi police has also launched several drives asking families to get their domestic workers verified. Invariably, such drives are launched immediately after a sensational murder or burglary. And always, domestic workers are harassed and even financially exploited by the police.

"Our aim is to give domestic workers the same status as regular workers and consolidate existing laws in their favour."
- Human Rights Law Network

 •  At home, at work
 •  In the name of servitude
 •  Organising inside the home
 •  Minimised by the law

The mostly part-time domestic workers at the Mumbai public hearing in August 2004 talked about police brutality. The child workers at the hearing said they were not paid for months sometimes.

The biggest problem facing domestic workers across the country is their non-recognition as workers. Domestic workers don't come under labour laws - they have no right to workers' compensation, weekly holidays and minimum wages. Even the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986, does not include domestic workers. Attempts were made to introduce legislation to improve the lot of the domestic workers but the Domestic Workers Bill was stalled in 1990 and again in 1996.

In 2001, HRLN launched the campaign to protect the rights of domestic workers. Along with NDWM, they are trying to organise domestic workers, most of whom are illiterate, lack confidence and are often victims of sexual exploitation and rape. NDWM says it deals with 10-15 cases of abuse and/or violations in a month in Delhi itself.

In 2003, more than 200 young women domestic workers staged a demonstration in Delhi demanding security, just wages, and end to exploitation of domestic workers. They had come together after the media reported how the police was shielding an air force officer responsible for the rape of a domestic worker.

In 2002, HRLN filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in the Supreme Court on behalf of the National Domestic Workers Welfare Trust, SETU (a project of Nirmala Niketan, College of Social Work) and Youth for Unity and Voluntary organisation (YUVA), all in Mumbai. The PIL challenged the inadequate social and legal protection extended to this section of society, demanding better working conditions like mandatory national holidays and two weeks of paid leave, in addition to weekly off for workers. Also, it sought medical assistance for accidents caused 'on-site' and during employment. Maternity benefits, provident fund benefits were also called for as well a proposal to issue identity cards to the workers.

"Our basic aim is to give domestic workers the same status as regular workers and consolidate existing laws in their favour," says Aatreyee Sen, Assistant Director HRLN's Child Rights Initiative of HRLN.