Despite a Parliament Act and Supreme Court order, existence of bonded labour points to the lack of awareness on the ground, reports IMMANUEL CYRUS
The International Labour Organisation (ILO) along with Australia-based Walk Free Foundation (WFF), recently published a report titled ‘Global Estimates of Modern Slavery: Forced Labour and Forced Marriage 2017’, that said that nearly 1.4% of India’s population or nearly 18 million people were in some form of slavery. Although India has condemned the survey which was conducted in 2016 but published in late 2017 as “politically motivated”, the findings thrown up by the report still leave a lot of questions to be answered. Article 23 of the Constitution prohibits and criminalises human trafficking and forced labour. Parliament passed The Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act in 1976 and The Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act in 1986.
In 1982, the Supreme Court defined forced labour as any labour for which the worker received less than the minimum wage stipulated by the government, the logic being that no one would work for less than the minimum wage unless “he is acting under the force of some compulsion”. In spite of these laws, the existence of bonded labour points to the lack of awareness and implementation of the law on the ground. The former is due to lack of education on the part of the people being exploited and the latter due to the apathy of the system and callousness of the exploiter.
INTERTWINED NATURE OF COMMERCIAL CHANNELS AND BONDED LABOUR
According to the 2017 report, “on any given day in 2016, 40 million people were victims of modern slavery”, including 25 million in forced labour and 15 million in forced marriage. Globally, 45.8 million people are enslaved, the report estimated. The countries with the highest prevalence as a proportion of the population were North Korea, Uzbekistan, Cambodia, India, and Qatar. But India, China, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Uzbekistan had the highest absolute numbers respectively. It is hard to know exactly how many people are subject to slavery, the authors of the report admitted. In India, Gallup conducted the surveys in 15 states that were used as the basis for the estimate. They found that all forms of modern slavery continue to exist in India, including intergenerational bonded labour, forced child labour, commercial sexual exploitation, forced begging, forced recruitment into nonstate armed groups and forced marriage. Among the commercial sectors known to use slave labour in India were the construction, sex, agriculture, fishing and manufacturing industries as well as domestic help and begging, the report said. Domestic workers, construction labourers, factory workers and farmhands who work under threat or coercion produce products (food, clothes), or services which end up in seemingly legitimate commercial channels.
THE MULTIFACETED ASPECT OF DEBT BONDAGE
In debt bondage, slaves are chained to an illegal financial obligation that they are forced to repay through endless labour. If unrelenting psychological pressure fails, slave holders enforce their grip through direct violence. Those caught in this trap are paid only enough to stay alive to work another day. Usurious interest rates ensure they can never earn enough to repay the debt. Those in slavery cannot walk away, even if they could pay off the loan more quickly by working elsewhere. Debt bondage has been outlawed in India, but impoverished villagers do not know their rights and many have no choice but to borrow funds when a family emergency arises. Many slaves have been trafficked away from their communities, with no way to get home if they were to escape.
Debt also snares women and girls into sex slavery at roadside red-light districts, now widely dispersed across the Indian countryside. Forced and fake marriages, often driven by financial factors, are widely used as a way of trafficking adolescent girls into domestic slavery and sexual exploitation. Vulnerability is the key factor that drives slavery in India. Impoverished villagers who lack financial, legal, medical, and educational services are most likely to borrow from predatory moneylenders during times of crisis. Widespread caste-based discrimination also puts entire communities at risk.
WHAT CAN BE DONE TO FIGHT SLAVERY?
There are many organisations in India that successfully fight bonded labour and slavery. Freedom begins with the realization that slavery can be beaten.Educating those in bondage about their rights, and showing them how others in similar circumstances have successfully reclaimed their freedom, is the first step. Villagers must challenge the authority of slave holders and demand police rescues of those who cannot free themselves. The formation of standing village committees helps residents collectively determine when and how they will make their break from bondage. The committees can serve as vehicles for survivors to advocate for better schools, health care, economic development, and other community investments they are already entitled to under Indian law. Those in slavery need to sketch out what their life in freedom should look like. This includes planning new ways to earn a living, often by learning a new trade or craft. Children in slavery suffer from gaps in their education. Once rescued, they require accelerated remedial schooling before they can join their peers in public school classrooms. There are quite a few organisations that help children in such circumstances. Another organisation called “Samarthan” operates the same way but focuses more on creating awareness through mass communication media and through field work in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand.
ROLE OF THE JUDICIAL SYSTEM IN REFORMING THE STATUS QUO
Lawyers can help advocate for law enforcement to act on complaints lodged by those in slavery. They can also help slavery survivors receive formal government certification as crime victims opening a range of employment opportunities and social service benefits. Helping community members with the legal formalities of establishing businesses, such as obtaining permission to operate stone quarry operations on government land, which provides economic resilience can go a long way in establishing financial independence. Access to legal support helps the vulnerable ward off threats by those who would enslave them. They help survivors gain access to food rations, pensions, housing, agricultural land, and identity documents.