Theresa May renews campaign against slavery

Sunanda K Datta-Ray | Updated on: Thursday, May 30, 2019, 02:55 AM IST


It’s unfortunate that what Theresa May called “the great human rights issue of our time” should be thought to target India. Although beset with troubles at home over Brexit, Mrs May has used the 2017 UN general assembly to renew her campaign against slavery.

This is not something India need feel too guilty about. A critical report “By the Sweat and Toil of Children” by the United States labour secretary, Robert Reich, was a moral victory for the Indian crusader, Kailash Satyarthi, who fought to ensure that carpets carried a label saying they had not been made by children. He won the Robert Kennedy Human Rights Award. But it’s true that whether we like it or not, our population of 1.2 crores contains many of the world’s most deprived and depressed. India’s caste system, varna or colour – has often been called the most ancient colour bar in the world. In one way or another, an indebted peasantry is also often like bonded labour in practice. Despite Satyarthi, thousands of young children still have to labour in fields and factories. The fault lies in centuries of economic distress, social imbalance and built-in injustice, and cannot be blamed on any one government. Successive Congress regimes were as culpable as Janata or the present NDA government. It so happens that Asians and Europeans have different social standards, and what the West regards as slavery might seem like normal employment in this country. That is why Indian diplomats and other officials in Britain and the US have been accused from time to time of exploiting the servants they take from home, giving them low wages and making them work for long hours in conditions that Western observers find intolerable.

It is often said in defence that the servants themselves don’t complain, and that they are grateful for the chance to go abroad, earn something and send money home. Similarly, it can be argued that if children below the stipulated age did not work in match and carpet factories or in the field, they and their families would starve. Which is better, realists might ask, honest if hard labour to fill a family’s stomachs or death in pursuit of an ideal?


There are no easy answers to difficult questions that go to the heart of a society that is whirling in space in a bullock cart. India straddles so many worlds and so many ages that it is developed, developing and under-developed at the same time. It is primitive and sophisticated, modern and backward, rich and poor, progressive and reactionary, urban and rural. No one set of rules and principles can apply to this infinite variety. Nor is there any merit in citing a handful of people in Mumbai or New Delhi to claim we are all educated and enlightened. This should be remembered because of an extremely touchy and highly nationalistic government’s tendency to take umbrage at anything that does not make India appear great and grand. Hence the NDA’s unending quarrels with non-governmental organisations ever since it came to power in 2014. To some extent this is an inherited phobia: India has always been suspicious of voluntary workers, and doubly so when their labours are funded from abroad.

Because we are not charitable enough to engage in such tasks, we find it difficult to accept that anyone does. Because our government does not finance philanthropy, we question the motives of those that do. In one way or another, the “foreign hand” and its many manifestations, real and imagined, have always haunted our thinking. One tangible – if not very credible – objection seems to be that protests organised by foreign-funded NGOs like Greenpeace were slashing India’s Gross Domestic Product by between 2 and 3 per cent.

As a result, the government has constantly scrutinised NGOs, sometimes through acceptable means like auditing their finances but also often by alleging without credible evidence that they are part of a global conspiracy to discredit India. The International Human Rights Commission is to some extent tarred with the same brush.  India doesn’t take a kindly view of the IHRC’s investigations unless they are to the detriment of Pakistan or China. The UN-backed International Labour Organisation isn’t a great favourite either because it pries into working hours, conditions, safety at the workplace, and wages. However, the survey of slavery that the ILO, the International Organization for Migration and the Australia-based Walk Free Foundation conducted recently, and which seems to have upset New Delhi, doesn’t name India. Nevertheless, the government is believed to have written to the ILO challenging its findings.


Touchiness may be understandable in view of the claim last year by Global Slavery Index that a little over 18 million people — the entire population of Chile — are victims of modern slavery in Asia’s third-largest economy. Such persons are often engaged in domestic work, construction, farming, fishing, manual labour, forced begging, and in the sex industry. The index defines modern slavery 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.” This also includes victims of human trafficking, forced labour, debt bondage, forced or servile marriage, and the sale and exploitation of children. The GSI report says nearly 46 million people are held as modern slaves across the world, 58 per cent of them being in India, China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Uzbekistan.

It is a considerable achievement for the UK that 37 nations have endorsed Mrs May’s call to action. For many governments the issues raised are not only contentious but interfere with the traditional way of life. One signatory, Qatar, persists with kafala, a system of tied visas that effectively empowers unscrupulous employers to enslave tens of thousands of migrant South Asian construction and domestic workers, most notoriously perhaps those involved in the needlessly bloody preparations for the 2022 World Cup.

The UK’s own overseas domestic worker visa similarly endangers migrants to Britain, yet Mrs May remains obdurate in the face of proposals for reform, including the recommendations of an independent review established by her own department when she was home minister. Instead, she harks back to the historic stand Britain took two centuries ago to ban slavery. Her government seems all set to once again show the way in defeating modern slavery and preserving freedoms and values it claims to hold dear.  “These crimes must be stopped and the victims of modern slavery must go free” Britain’s beleaguered leader declared. “This is the great human rights issue of our time, and as prime minister I am determined that we will make it a national and international mission to rid our world of this barbaric evil.”Fine words but altruism, like charity, begins at home.


The writer is the author of several books and a regular media columnist.

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Published on: Saturday, October 14, 2017, 09:08 AM IST