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Obscured by a Diplomatic Dispute, Slavery Persists in India


Indian villagers participating in IPEC
Indian villagers participating in a project of the International Program for the Elimination of Child Labor, which is helping the government converge good practices in five states. A. DOW/ILO

Over the last year, as India and the United States headed for an impasse over how to deal with an Indian deputy consul-general in New York indicted for visa fraud for bringing a domestic worker into the country — and then abusing the employee’s rights — numerous reports were emerging on the prevailing extent of slavery or slavelike conditions in India, a world leader in worker abuse.

The irony has not been lost on the few commentators in the Indian media who have not joined the bombastic chorus of wounded pride over an Indian diplomat being treated as an ordinary law breaker. Those who look beyond the hysterical and overblown defense of national sovereignty in this case, and the Indian government’s disproportionate retributions, have questioned why the fate of the diplomat, Devyani Khobragade, who was deported from the US on Jan. 9, was getting all the outraged attention when there was scant mention and less sympathy for the exploited maid, Sangeeta Richard.

P. Sainath, an award-winning Indian journalist who has written for years about poverty and the agonies of rural life, suggested this answer in an article in The Hindu newspaper on Dec, 30: “Why? Because the charges leveled against her [Khobragade] might well apply to a very large number of our embassy and consular staff. And not just in New York. Imagine the embarrassment ahead if this prosecution were to extend to the rest of the fraternity. After all, the domestic help who have been ripped off are also Indian citizens. What if some group clubbed together a raft of such cases and brought something like a class-action suit in American courts? It could cost the government of India millions of dollars.”

Underpayment and ill-treatment of domestic help is “routine and obnoxious,” he wrote.

The exploitation and abuse of Indian workers, particularly poor Indians, is well known around the world and in UN agencies. Millions migrate in search of better lives and are often conned by traffickers and abused by employers who withhold wages and physically mistreat them. Millions of others fall into bondage at home.

In July, the 2013 Trafficking in Persons Report from the US State Department concluded: “The forced labor of an estimated 20 to 65 million citizens constitutes India’s largest trafficking problem; men, women and children in debt bondage are forced to work in industries such as brick kilns, rice mills, agriculture and embroidery factories.” The report added, “A common characteristic of bonded labor is the use of physical and sexual violence as coercive means.”

The State Department said that 90 percent of trafficking takes place within the country’s borders “and those from India’s most disadvantaged social strata, including the lowest castes, are most vulnerable.”

This finding echoed reports in recent years from the World Bank, the International Labor Organization and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. The World Bank estimated in 2010 that 32.7 percent of India’s 1.2 billion people lived below the international poverty line of less than US$1.25 a day — accounting for one-third of all the world’s poorest people. The bank has consistently said that poverty and India’s caste system are significant contributing factors to its modern slavery problem, since Indians most vulnerable to forced labor are those from the lowest castes and indigenous communities, especially women and children. The State Department’s trafficking report, like UN agency and World Bank surveys, found that in domestic work, women and children are often subject to sexual abuse.

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In the case of Sangeeta Richard in New York, her accusations involved very low pay, extraordinarily long hours of work and the confiscation of her passport by the diplomat, Khobragade, denying Richard the freedom to quit her job and return home. In India, her husband and other family members were pressured by demands that she recant. The State Department, concerned that the family had been threatened and might be in danger, evacuated them to the US.

In July 2013, the same month that the State Department report was released, the British government, in partnership with the International Labor Organization and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, introduced a Work in Freedom program to fight trafficking of women and girls from South Asia, a region dominated by India. The International Labor Organization estimates that about 21 million people live in slavery or slavelike conditions worldwide, about half of them in India.

Then in October, the Australia-based Walk Free Foundation published for the first time an ambitious Global Slavery Index, which estimated that more than 29.8 million people globally were living in conditions that included not only forced labor but also involuntary or forced social situations such as child marriage. The index showed that a handful of countries in South Asia and Africa accounted for 76 percent of the total, with India having the highest number in absolute numbers, about 14 million, and Mauritania the highest proportion of the population, variously estimated by some local organizations between 4 percent and 20 percent, the Walk Free Foundation found.

“India exhibits the full spectrum of different forms of modern slavery, from severe forms of inter-generational bonded labor across various industries to the worst forms of child labor, commercial sexual exploitation and forced and servile marriage,” the foundation reported, citing India’s own 2008 program to combat trafficking, which acknowledged the size and continuing spread of abuses.

Several characteristics of the Indian situation make it difficult if not impossible for outsiders to assess the full scale of the problem or intervene in any way to alleviate it. One of the hurdles is identification. “Some of those affected by slavery in India do not officially exist — they have no birth registration or ID so it can be hard for them to access protective entitlements,” the Walk Free Foundation said. Many are also unable to break out of their ghettos, which may be forcibly circumscribed by higher castes, especially in rural areas. “Many of India’s enslaved have not been moved from one place to another — they are enslaved in their own villages,” the report said.

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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.

Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”

Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.

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