Alvina Ika, who looks around twenty, was a domestic-help in Srinagar for a year but ran away from her employer’s house three weeks back. She says an agent at her hometown Jharkhand lured her. “He didn’t pay me a single rupee and refused to take me back home,” she says.

Alvina took refuge at a security and placement company’s hostel in Srinagar. Its owner Zahoor Ahmad says his friend saw Alvina seeking help last week. “She doesn’t know the agent’s name, the place she worked at and not even her parents’ contact number,” says Ahmad, vowing to arrange for her return back home.

An employer, wishing anonymity, narrates her awful experience with a placement agency.

“The agent went missing and my maid couldn’t go home after the two-year contract. We could finally trace him a year later and he agreed to take her back when we warned him of a police case.”

Employers outnumber domestic-workers in Jammu and Kashmir even though a million of its residents are reportedly unemployed—many of them illiterate. The workers from some other states throng Kashmir in hundreds to fill the space. They are economically backward and poverty makes them prove to exploitation.

Nandita*, who is in her fifties, works for an upper middle-class family in Srinagar for nine months. Promise of a better future made her leave home where she earned around Rs 200 a day as a daily wager. “The agent promised a good salary with food and accommodation for the basic household work,” she said.

When employed, she was made to nurse an elderly bed-ridden woman.

“Sometimes I do not eat food as nursing makes me nauseous… I couldn’t refuse or I would lose my job without earning a single penny.”

However, her employer, wishing anonymity, says he specifically asked the agency for a nurse and hence expected her to do the same.

Ahmad says ‘genuine agencies’ place workers as cooks, gardeners or housekeepers. “The routine workers are not supposed to do anything other than housekeeping,” he says. “They deserve extra money for any extra work.”

A United Nations report says the workers may take “care of children and the elderly.” But there is usually no contract made in advance.

“The sector lacks effective means to regulate working conditions, for example, through streamlined job descriptions which could be offered through standard contracts,” the report says.

National Domestic Workers’ Movement – a non-governmental organisation – says domestic workers have “no bargaining power due to their situations of poverty, illiteracy and low-skills.” It says, “They are also one of the poorest and most exploited groups of workers in the country.”

Website of the Jammu and Kashmir police asks employers to keep a record of workers and inform police in case they are ‘dismissed for misconduct’. However, there is no proper regulatory system in place.

The Deputy Labour Commissioner of Kashmir, Ghulam Rasool Kumar, says his office lacks mandate to supervise employment of domestic workers.

The Labour Commissioner of Jammu and Kashmir, Sarmad Hafeez, says the concerned agencies are “mostly registered outside” the state. However, he says, his department can book people violating rights of domestic workers but action is possible only when people complain. “It’s very difficult to pinpoint rights violations in a domestic space… You can enter into a person’s home only with the help of police.”

The ‘Domestic Workers Welfare and Social Security Act 2010’ is not applicable to Jammu and Kashmir. “We try to cover them under other labour acts,” he says.

“We can prosecute people under the provisions of various acts but people need to support us in this and come forward [with complaints].”

*Name has been changed to protect identity