Who are the world’s “modern slaves”?
Men, women and children who are forced to work against their will, or who are living in forced marriages. The first category covers domestic workers, construction labourers, factory workers, farmhands etc., working under threat or coercion. In many cases, the products (food, clothes, etc.) that they make, or the services (housekeeping etc.) that they provide, end up in seemingly legitimate commercial channels. The second category consists of individuals — an overwhelming number of whom are women — who are in marriages to which they had not consented. They have lost their sexual autonomy, and often provide labour under the guise of ‘marriage’.
How does India look at forced labour?
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”. (People’s Union for Democratic Rights and Others vs Union of India and Others)
What is the global survey on modern slavery?
In 2012, Australian mining billionaire Andrew Forrest founded the Walk Free Foundation (WFF) with the aim of eliminating modern slavery. Forrest was apparently advised by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates to find a way to quantify the problem because “if you can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist”. The result was the global slavery index. The first report in 2013 ranked countries based on the prevalence of modern slavery. Subsequent reports also evaluated government response to the challenge. 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.
What does the survey say of India?
The 2016 survey ranked 167 countries based on the proportion of the population estimated to be in slavery. India came in fourth after North Korea, Uzbekistan and Cambodia.
In terms of the absolute numbers of people in slavery, India ranked first — ahead of China, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
In its assessment of the response of governments to fight slavery, the 2016 report ranked India behind Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka, but ahead of Pakistan and China.
More than 270 million people lived below the poverty line in India, and the informal nature of much of the labour economy also impacted on vulnerability, the 2016 report noted. It acknowledged that India “has taken many steps designed to address vulnerability on a broad scale” by criminalising “trafficking, slavery, forced labour, child prostitution and forced marriage”, but blamed “the absence of strong, continuing coordination” across government agencies for “a fragmented and complex response” to modern slavery.
So why has the IB woken up only now?
The IB note (the details of which were published in The Indian Express on October 4) came a week after the 2017 report was released on November 19. The report did not have country-specific numbers, but estimated the largest number of modern slaves to be in the Asia-Pacific region.
The IB was probably galvanised by the fact that International Labour Organisation, a UN body, had joined hands with WFF in March 2017 to produce the report. The IB wants the government to intervene diplomatically to force ILO to dissociate from WFF. The IB note also refers to the fact that the 2017 slavery report was funded by the US Department of Labour, and that WFF has been endorsed by Hillary Clinton and Gates.
But what exactly is the IB’s objection?
The IB finds the statistics “questionable” due to the survey’s apparently lopsided sampling. The 2017 report is based on interviews with 71,758 respondents in 48 countries. Nearly a fourth (17,000) of them were in India — the next largest sample being just 2,000 for nine countries including Russia, Bangladesh and Pakistan. In other survey countries, typically, 1,000 interviews were conducted.
India was also the only country where WFF conducted state-specific surveys for its 2016 report — a total 14,000 respondents were interviewed in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Kerala, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.
The survey reports do not explain the special focus on India. The IB thinks it is “motivated”.
The IB note pointed to three developments: (a) the surveys started to report India prominently from 2013, (b) Dutch NGOs have been highlighting “slavery” in the South Indian textile industry since 2014, and (c) anti-slavery legislation enacted in the UK in 2015 require businesses to declare that none of their suppliers violate slavery norms. Significantly though, the 15-state slavery survey in the 2016 report did not cover Tamil Nadu, South India’s textile hub. But it did recommend that “export-oriented industries such as textiles should work through their industry bodies and with appropriate third parties to create industry-wide supply chains that are free of modern slavery”.
Is the IB the first to object to the slavery survey methodology?
No. A 2014 paper by researchers from George Mason University, Virginia, said “methods used in the Index are currently inadequate and therefore the Index cannot be validated or replicated.” Earlier this year, global human trafficking expert Anne T Gallagher described the methodology as “opaque and incomplete” in part, and called for “rigorous scrutiny”, as the survey would be relied upon for disbursing millions of dollars towards anti-slavery efforts, and could also be used selectively by governments to “advance their own agendas and interests”.
What has been WFF’s defence?
In the 2016 report, Forrest claimed that the index was “a brave ‘line in the sand’ measurement” backed by “the worldwide power of (US-based research giant) Gallup to survey entire countries and provinces in more than 50 languages”. To critics, he said: “To all those who seek to criticise the imperfection of the Index, may I humbly ask that you attach a solution, or at least an alternative, to your criticism.