By Anuradha Nagaraj
CHENNAI, India, April 11 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The discovery of the body of a 12-year-old Indian girl who was trafficked to work as a maid in southern city of Bengaluru, has raised fresh concerns about other children trapped in domestic servitude, police said Tuesday.
Preliminary investigations suggest the girl had fallen to her death from the ninth floor apartment where she had worked for two years after being sent to work for a couple in Bengaluru by a New Delhi-based agency, police said.
The child's death has prompted police to launch an investigation across the southern state of Karnataka to find other girls who may have been recruited by the same agency to work as maids, senior police officer Hemant Nimbalkar said.
"She was trafficked and our probe suggests that the placement agency that sent her to Bengaluru also sent many other young girls," Nimbalkar told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"There appears to be a big network operating."
There are an estimated 50 million domestic workers in India, most of them women and girls, who are often exploited in the absence of any legal protection, women's rights campaigners say.
A bill to improve working conditions for domestic workers by introducing a minimum salary, social security cover and mandatory time off is still awaiting cabinet approval.
Nimbalkar said the dead girl had been trafficked from the eastern state of Assam and that her salary was paid directly to the agency by her employers, a chartered accountant and dentist.
The couple said they thought she was 18 and an orphan, adding that they had not done any background checks but put their trust in the placement agency, the police said.
"As it turns out, the girl's father was looking for her for nearly two years," said Geeta Menon of Stree Jagruti Samiti, a Bengaluru charity which works to promote the rights of domestic workers.
"It took days to track him and when he came to take his daughter's body back home, he was just heart-broken."
Rights activists say traffickers target poor villages in states such as West Bengal, Bihar, Assam, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, convincing vulnerable families to send their daughters away for employment.
But the girls and young women are often passed on to unregulated placement agencies and transported in groups to cities where a growing middle class is looking for cheap live-in labour.
"With many northern states framing laws to regulate people being hired as domestic work, south India seems to have become a safe haven for agents," Menon said.
"This case has come as a wake-up call and we hope other girls will be rescued before they die."
(Reporting by Anuradha Nagaraj, Editing by Katie Nguyen.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)