The Enslaved Maid

February 19, 2024

The Unbroken Spirit of a Woman

Laxmi Swami was born into an impoverished family in Mumbai. She had already had 7 children by the age of 20. Her alcoholic husband abandoned her. In 1978, two sisters of the then Emir of Kuwait employed her as a domestic servant. From 1979 until 1983, her royal employers brought her to London on four occasions. There, they locked her up for long periods. She endured violent assaults and basic deprivation of food and medical assistance. Finally, the police rescued her.

The Brent Asian Women’s Refuge offered her support and accommodation. After more than a year of examining her history with the Refuge’s assistance, Rohit started a High Court claim against the princesses for compensation for false imprisonment and assault. It is believed to have been the first time in modern legal history that a servant had commenced private civil proceedings for damages against employers for civil torts.

The case presented an exceptionally large number of legal problems and obstacles. How wide was the Court’s jurisdiction? How would the team serve the court papers on the princesses in Kuwait? Were Laxmi’s claims time-barred? Would she be entitled to a jury trial? Even if she won, would she be able to enforce any award in Kuwait?

The case took almost five years to reach trial. At its conclusion, an English jury sitting with Mr Justice Popplewell made what was believed to be the largest award for this type of claim in English legal history.

The case was widely reported in the British and international media.  However, its broader benefit was the focus it provided for the concern over the safety of all domestic servants in the United Kingdom. Members of Parliament in both Houses raised the issue in the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Commentators characterised the situation of abused domestic servants as being no different from that of slaves.

The debate still rages on today, more than 35 years later.

Judgements & Media

For media reports on the case of Laxmi Peria Swami, see:

Germaine Greer, Our Allies, the Slave Holders, The New York Times Online, 14 November 1990

Kevin Bales, Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy

Angela Lambert, Ein Leben lang gezeichnet, Zeit Online, 1 March 1991

Shekhar Gupta, Indian maids endure new form of slavery in Kuwait, India Today, 24 June 2013