NEW DELHI (TrustLaw) - When I arrived in India some years back as a single mother and full-time journalist, there was one thing I knew I wouldn’t have to worry about – finding domestic help.
Maids, nannies, drivers, cooks and cleaners are ten-a-penny amongst the urban middle classes here.
In New Delhi, most families employ full- or part-time help, who do everything from feeding and bathing babies and cooking family meals to sweeping and washing floors.
These are often young, uneducated women from impoverished villages trying to earn money to support their families back home.
My first live-in nanny was delivered to me on the back of a motorcycle by an eager man from a placement agency my friend had suggested to me.
"We have many girls here," he had said in Hindi. "It won’t be a problem finding what you want."
Some questions were asked, official I.D. cards shown and a less than basic contract signed. I handed over a large wad of rupee notes to him as per their "commission fee."
It all seemed a little too easy. But I brushed off my doubts as I was new to the experience of hiring domestic help in India.
During the four weeks that my new nanny, Parul, stayed with me, my concerns about her circumstances and how she came to work for me increased.
She was a shy, young woman in her early 20s from a village in India’s state of West Bengal, bordering Bangladesh. She said she had been to primary school, but could not read or write.
Parul spoke little of her personal life and evaded questions about her family. On her Sundays off, the same man from the agency would come in the morning to pick her up and dropped her home at night.
I found it strange that she went to the agency on her holidays, and that she didn’t have any other thing to do during her time off.
The man from the agency was always there in the background – either calling her up several times during the day or hanging around outside the house during her free time.
I first realised the young woman living in my house was a victim of human trafficking when the placement agent demanded I hand over Parul’s first monthly earnings to him.
"This is the process here in India. The agency keeps their salaries safe for them every month and they get the whole amount after the contract ends when they go home to their villages," he explained.
"These maids don’t need any money anyway. You are providing food and lodging. If they need, they can ask the agency and we will give them."
When I refused, he got angry, grabbed Parul’s arm and stormed out with her.
I never saw her again – consumed possibly by a multi-billion dollar trade that buys and sells people, often children and women, for sex work, domestic and industrial labour, forced marriage as well as for their organs.
The supply chain often starts in the poverty-stricken villages of states like Bihar, West Bengal, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand where traffickers convince vulnerable families to send their daughters and sons to the cities with the promise of good jobs.
The children and women are passed onto men, who bring them in groups to cities where a growing middle class – doctors, lawyers, teachers, civil servants, businessmen, IT professionals – are looking for no fuss, cheap, efficient live-in labour.
In many cases, victims go to placement agencies – often a decrepit, rented room or flat – where they stay with little freedom until the phone rings and an unsuspecting customer like me orders a maid.
There have been numerous reports of employers mistreating their domestic workers – not paying them or providing them with proper food and shelter, making them work long hours with no holidays and even locking them up when holidaying.
Women and children have beaten and sexually abused not only by their traffickers, but also by their employers.
When I hear these stories, I feel a sense of shame that I did not do enough to save my nanny in a society that is not asking enough about the women who live and work in our homes.
This article is part of a Thomson Reuters Foundation special report ontrafficking and modern day slavery.
Trafficking and modern day slavery will be high on the agenda at the Trust Women conference, Dec 4-5