PANAJI, INDIA — Sr. Marie Lou Barboza was shocked to see the condition of a teenage girl one of her volunteers brought to her. The girl had burn marks on her body, and her unkempt hair was cut haphazardly. She would become hysterical when someone approached her. Barboza discovered that her condition was the result of maltreatment by her employer.
“That incident compelled us to begin our work among migrants,” the member of the Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary told Global Sisters Report earlier this year in an interview at the congregation’s apartment in Porvorim, just north of Panaji, in Goa state.
That incident was seven years ago when Barboza was working for the National Domestic Workers’ Movement in the west coast Indian state, the country’s tourism hub that draws thousands of laborers from other regions.
Barboza’s congregation, a partner of the workers movement, sent two sisters to Goa in 2011 to aid domestic workers. Barboza joined them two years later after working with the movement in Mumbai, India’s commercial capital, and Tamil Nadu, a southern Indian state.
After meeting the mistreated girl, Barboza began visiting parishes and homes of migrant domestic workers in Goa. She went by herself to visit the slums, as her two elderly companions could not travel.
Later, two young nuns joined Barboza to work exclusively with about 1,600 migrants, mostly tribal women of various religions from states such as Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Odisha and Telangana. The nuns’ three-bedroom apartment has become the meeting place for the migrants, who work in different parts of Goa, a small state.
While migrant women work as domestic help and serve in restaurants, shops and roadside kiosks, the men build houses and roads or work as waiters and bakers.
Barboza, who is 67, says many migrants refuse to join the workers movement because of threats from employers, who dislike the job demands the activists are seeking.
“We send notices to employers if they pay unjust wages,” Barboza said as she took GSR to a slum of migrant workers in Saligao, 3.5 miles from the nuns’ residence.
The nun said the migrants want to maintain their self-respect. “They are not pleased if we take photographs” of them and their families.
A 12-hour day for the sister
The nun’s weekday routine begins at 6 a.m. when she sets out with her lunchbox to visit families in the slums to help them get food and medical aid. She returns to the convent at 6 p.m., exhausted.
“My heart goes out for the migrants. They struggle for their living. They are also forced to find new places to stay every two years,” she said as we moved from one family to another. Employers keep migrants on the move, fearing that, after two years, they can claim permanent residency on their property. In addition, when new tenants come, landlords can raise the room rents.
Sunday is the busiest day for the nuns because a string of workers come with their families to chitchat with the sisters and sometimes stay for a meal. “That is our life. We have committed to serve the poor, the migrants, the domestic servants, daily laborers,” Barboza explained.
Barboza got a call one night from another teenage girl, complaining about her employer trying to molest her when his wife was away to have her baby. “I called the man and asked him to bring the girl to our residence at once. He brought her and apologized for his misbehavior. He requested me to send the girl back to work for him, but I refused.”
But her decision brought another problem for the sisters, whose quarters are limited. She had to find a place for the girl to stay at night. “There are times when we have to provide accommodation and food to such people.”
Besides attending to such problems, the nuns visit the migrants’ houses, focus on the faith formation of the Catholics among them, and create awareness about their rights.
Pushback from employers and locals
Barboza says her involvement with the migrant workers was challenging in the beginning. “It was tough to get acceptance of our mission by the employers.”
Her troubles were not limited to employers alone. Even local people and government officers ridiculed her for spending time on behalf of the migrants. They warned that the migrants would bring more like them to Goa and create problems for locals.
“They told me to find locals as domestic workers and help them first. Then look after the migrants. I took the challenge and found many local domestic workers. The government officials were willing to help them, but the local maids were not enough to meet the demand,” she said.
She says even their parish priest could not understand their involvement with the migrants, until she took the girl who had burn marks to him so that he could pray over her to dispel her fear.