India’s image at stake

Modern Forms of Slavery

By Dr. S.Saraswathi
(Former Director, ICSSR, New Delhi)

Modern slavery in various forms like forced labour, child labour, and human trafficking are among the global priority issues to be considered at the forthcoming CHOGM (Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting) scheduled to be held in London this month. The theme is “Towards a Common Future”.
This seems to be in response to the suggestion made by the UN Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery to the Commonwealth countries to find ways of eradicating all forms of modern slavery at the launch of a report by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI). That report contains recommendations to governments and civil society on the issue which is set out as Goal 8.7 in the UN Sustainable Development Goals to be achieved by 2030.
This Goal requires States to: “take immediate and effective measures to eradicate forced labour, and modern slavery, and human trafficking, and secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labour including recruitment and use of child soldiers, and by 2025 end child labour in all its forms”. Ending abuse, exploitation, trafficking and all forms of violence against children are targets of Goals 8.8 and 16.2.
According to some reports, 50 per cent of the worst forms of servitude in the world are in Commonwealth countries — a finding that may make us ponder over the nexus, if any, between colonial rule and slave mentality. But, the crucial point is not that, but the persistence of slave-master relationship in our country, a fast developing nation with a good record of progressive legislations.
The meeting is expected to pay particular attention to early and forced marriage — an issue uppermost in the minds of British reformers. The number of women married before the age of 18 years is estimated to be around 43 per cent in Commonwealth countries. Child marriage is still a serious problem in many States in India, encouraged, supported, and even forced by social customs. Celebrations of mass child marriages presided over by local political leaders are not hidden from public view despite legal prescription of minimum age of marriage for both boys and girls. Surely, a form of modern slavery!
Ambedkar had stated: “Slavery does not merely mean a legalised form of subjection. It means a state of society in which some (human beings) are forced to accept from others the purposes which control their conduct”.
Contemporary forms of slavery are detected in numerous situations including surviving traditional forms of bonded labour, forced labour, debt bondage, serfdom, child labour, slave-like conditions of work, domestic servitude, sexual slavery, and servile forms of marriage. All these thrive in subtle forms of denial of freedom to lead a life of one’s choice in the Indian society though there can be no legal ownership of human beings.
Seventy years have passed since the UN Declaration of Human Rights stated in Article 4 that, “No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms”.
According to ILO’s latest global estimates, there are 40 million victims of modern slavery of whom 25 million are in forced labour, 15 million in forced marriage around the world. Child labourers number about 152 million; and 156 million young workers are living in poverty. ILO has not defined slavery in any of its conventions and India does not recognise the term “modern slavery”.
Modern Slavery facts further provide the estimate of sexually exploited population world over as 4.8 million. Trafficking of women and girl children is a form of slave trade. Worst of all, in 2015, the UNO estimated that roughly 27 to 30 million people were caught in slave trade industry. Indeed, slavery was the first human rights issue to arouse international concern and outrage — an issue that assumes different forms and refuses to die.
The Walk Free Foundation (WFF), based in Australia, releases a Global Slavery Index annually and has continuously held India as a leading practitioner of modern slavery and put the figure of slaves in the country as 18 million in 2016. This index is based on indicators like presence or absence of protection and respect for rights, physical safety and security, access to necessities of life like food, water, and healthcare, and patterns of migration, displacement and conflict. These are measured under 24 measures of vulnerability and grouped in four dimensions that included civil and political protection, social health and economic rights, personal security, and refugee population and conflict.
The selected indicators are such that poverty and social and economic deprivations create conditions conducive to modern forms of slavery. These estimates do not focus on any one country, but provide global and regional picture of the situation. Their authenticity may be questionable.
The Labour and Employment Ministry is planning to conduct its own surveys on the prevalence of bonded labour in a bid to counter the various estimates floated by several private agencies. Identifying and estimating the number of persons in slave-like conditions is not the end of the problem. It is only the beginning to make us aware of the magnitude of the problem and its gravity. Our responsibility is to ascertain the conditions that permit this practice and eliminate them so as to permanently block the road to slavery. International ranking does not take into account the realities that promote slavery in any country.
In developed countries, slavery may thrive behind closed doors. Number of cases is said to be staggering in Australia. Modern slavery cases are said to be increasing even in Britain that takes a lead in decrying any form of force and even persuasion as detrimental to freedom. Britain adopted the Modern Slavery Act in 2015. It is followed with an Anti-Slavery Charter which includes the right to join a union as a key factor in tackling exploitation of workers.
China abolished legally recognised slavery in 1909, but sexual exploitation of women and children are common. Chinese Slave scandal rocked the country in 2007 when thousands of children went missing and later found working in brick kilns. Domestic servitude and forced begging are considered to be common forms of slavery in China. Forced labour is rampant also in Sub-Saharan Africa which has a long history of slave trade. Anti-Slavery Act of 1843 outlawed slave trade in India. Article 23 of the Indian Constitution prohibits forced labour. Bonded labour is abolished by an Act of Parliament in 1976.
Open slavery can be banished by law, but not its invisible details. The underlying causes must be destroyed. Child labour cannot be defended as better than starvation; nor child marriage as a social/caste practice.
Slavery Index affects the image of a country. Under global trade rules, it can affect the country economically in international trade and commerce. India has also reason to fear that its continuous low ranking will lead to elimination of some of its products in the world market.
Already some reputed products manufactured in our country like crackers, bangles, and carpets have come under suspicion for prevalence and sustenance under child labour. Therefore, India has to take immediate action against all forms of slavery.—INFA