Modern day slavery: the practices are deeply entwined with our everyday existence

Noida, Uttar Pradesh, India Updated: Aug 22, 2016, 08:01 AM(IST)

Are we walking away from the rampant vices of modern day slavery? Photograph:( Getty )

It was a rainy afternoon. We sat tight in a car for a tip-off. We had a mole in a brick kiln who was supposed to alert us as the owner of the kiln walked in. The cops wanted to arrest him on the location while releasing workers of the kiln. We got a call and rushed to the site. 

The owner was rounded up and asked to unlock the door behind which the workers were held captive. In the small room, more than 15 workers and their children were being illegally detained. They owed him money and he wouldn’t let them go, until they returned every penny of it. He was holding them hostage and they were what is described as bonded labour.

According to the 2016 Global Slavery Index, an estimated 45.8 million people are considered to be slaves around the world. Out of them, 58 per cent of the people living in slavery are from five countries: India, China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Uzbekistan. At present, 1.4 per cent of India’s population lives in modern-day slavery.

Age-old problem

The slave trade was an exceptionally brutal and profitable enterprise from the 1400s till the 1900s. It is estimated that during this period around 28 million people were trafficked from Africa to work on the plantations in the Americas. These people were subjected to inhuman atrocities. They were beaten, tortured, and had the most punishing work hours and despicable living conditions. It is believed that about 20 per cent of those trafficked died even before they reached their destination, chained to the ships that transported them from their homes.

The slaves in the US revolted and fought for their rights and dignity. It took years of struggle for them to gain their rights to education, employment, and other necessities of  a proper life. From that condition, they have come a long way with the US electing its first black president eight years back. But one cannot escape the fact that despite their years of struggle, people of colour still experience racial violence across the world.

Slavery was declared illegal with the League of Nations adopting the Slavery Convention in 1926. In 1948, the United Nations General Assembly did the same when it adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Slavery was rampant in India too. It became even more entrenched with the Britishers fixing high-level of rents to be paid by peasants. In the drought years, most peasants were unable to pay such exorbitant rents, forcing them to take loans at higher interest rates from the moneylenders. Eventually, they lost their lands to the landlord and became bonded labourers on the same lands they owned once. 

Unfortunately, even after 70 years of India's independence, farmers still take loans at high rates of interest, not to pay rent, but for their daughter’s wedding or to pay for some sudden medical emergency. They finally lose ownership of their land, thus turning into bonded labourers. 

Servitude then runs for generations in the family.

Slavery continues but in new forms

Slavery still exists today, not legally, of course, and continues to be a highly profitable industry around the world.

Modern-day slavery is described as a situation where “a person cannot refuse or leave because of threats, violence, coercion, abuse of power or deception, with treatment akin to a farm animal.” The categories of modern-day slavery are domestic servitude, sex trafficking, bonded labour, child labour, and forced marriage. We see all of them around us, yet, we have become immuned to it. 

Sometimes in the households of our extended family or friends, we see boys and girls between the age of 9 and 14 as domestic help. They usually wake up early in the morning to start the daily household chores and get to sleep late in the night, after washing the last utensil after dinner. There is no thought of sending these children to school. Moreover, certain families prefer younger children as they come for far less money.

There are several cases of children working in dangerous conditions, such as in mining and welding for wages as low as Rs.60 per week. Sometimes, the children are just given their meals with no wages being paid. In the South of Gujarat and Rajasthan, bonded labour is rampant, especially in the brick kiln industry. 

The International Labour Organization has estimated that about 11.7 million people are working as forced labourers in the Asia Pacific region. However, many consider this number, in reality, to be much higher. 

According to the UNICEF, 23 million girls are forced into marriages before they turn 18. For most Indians, this is not shocking. Thousands of girls are sold as sex workers either because their parents can no longer afford to sustain them or because they have been thrown out of their homes and no longer have a place to live. Girls and women are promised lucrative jobs in big cities but are forced to do domestic work or sold to brothels.

While the new law on trafficking, expected to be passed later this year, will help those forced into domestic and sexual work, there is still a long way to go. Bonded and forced labour is a problem that is rampant; child marriage that is frequently forced is a reality for far too many. A more sensitive human trafficking law will treat victims as people in need of aid and will not consider them criminals. This happens to be an important distinction that was lacking so far. The law originally did not differentiate between a trafficker and a victim of trafficking.

Mexicans slaves of the US

In some ways the US allows the Mexicans to exist in the country. They get paid much less than an American, and in cash, since their presence in the country goes undocumented. This clandestine system supports a wage far below the minimum wage and keeps the Mexicans in slave-like conditions at agricultural farms.

The Middle East and why India doesn’t say anything

A large number of Indians travel to the Middle East, where they live and work in deplorable conditions. Their passports are taken away. There is no hope of going back home until their contracts expire. Often they are not paid and are left starving. Some are routinely abused and tortured. Only recently hundreds of Indian workers were rescued from Saudi Arabia where they were living in camps without payments and were virtually starving. Nearly 3 million Indians live there and an overwhelming number of them are no more than slaves. 

The Saudi government had so far virtually turned a blind eye to the torture Indian workers were subjected to. Very recently, New Delhi stepped in to rescue thousands of Indian nationals stranded in the country with no money or permission to leave the country.

Freedom first

For all the talk about civilisations and evolved societies, we still haven’t delivered to the people basic human dignity. A large population lives in servitude and has barely enough to survive. Are we serious about bringing our population out into a place where they can at least afford their freedom?

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