Warning that “global documentation on slavery is increasingly targeting India as home to the highest number of slaves in the world,” the Intelligence Bureau in a “secret” note has recommended a strong campaign to “discredit” the information and a diplomatic offensive against it. The Bureau submitted its note to, among others, the Prime Minister’s Office, National Security Advisor, the MEA, the Ministry of Labour and R&AW last week.
The note cautions that the slavery documentation by International Labour Organisation (ILO), a United Nations agency, and the Australia-based Walk Free Foundation (WFF), “has enough potential to substantially harm India’s image and exports and impact its efforts to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 8.7.” This refers to eradicating forced and child labour, and human trafficking.
The IB note was prepared within a week of the ILO-WFF releasing their latest report “Global Estimates of Modern Slavery: Forced Labour and Forced Marriage” on September 19. Since 2013, successive global slavery surveys has found India to be the country with the highest number of people working in modern slavery “under threat or coercion as domestic workers, on construction sites, in clandestine factories, on farms and fishing boats, in other sectors, and in the sex industry.”
In many cases, says the latest ILO-WFF report, the products these modern slaves “made and the services they provided ended up in seemingly legitimate commercial channels.” They produce “some of the food we eat and the clothes we wear” and they clean “the buildings in which many of us live or work.”
The IB note claims that European corporations use the ILO-WFF survey “to fund NGOs to focus on alleged ‘slavery’ in South India’s textile industry (40% of India’s textile exports)” while recent anti-slavery laws in the US and UK “make it mandatory for businesses to declare that none of their suppliers are violating slavery norms.”
While the IB did not specify any in the note, the two prominent reports on alleged slavery in the Indian textile industry were released by Dutch NGOs. In October 2014, ‘Flawed Fabrics”, a report by India Committee of the Netherlands (ICN) and Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO), highlighted the alleged abuse of girls and women working in the South Indian textile industry.
In December 2016, ICN surveyed 734 spinning mills in Tamil Nadu to claim in its second report, “Fabric of Slavery,” various forms of slavery, including child labour, in more than 90 percent of these units which produced yarn for Western brands.
The IB has recommended a three-pronged strategy: counter “motivated” advocacy with a credible slavery estimation through a much larger sample survey; “discredit” WFF’s questionable estimate, through a rejoinder from Indian Statistical Institute; and intervene diplomatically to force ILO to dissociate from WFF, a private foundation.
When contacted, Indian Statistical Institute director Sanghamitra Bandyopadhyay, however, said that the institute was not doing any work on bonded labour or slavery. “As far as I can remember, no government or non-government agency approached us with such project in the past two years,” Bandyopadhyay said.
In its note, the Bureau further pointed out that the WFF, created in 2012 by Australian mining tycoon Andrew Forrest, was formally endorse by Hillary Clinton, Tony Blair and Bill Gates. It underlined that the US government funded the 2017 report which estimated 40 million slaves in the world, including 25 million in the Asia-Pacific.
“Unlike earlier WFF reports,” the note added, “it avoided mentioning country specific numbers. However, all indications are that India is being assessed to have 14-18 million slaves, the highest in the world.” In the 2016 survey, the Asia-Pacific region and India accounted for 30 million and 18 million, respectively, of the total 46 million slaves estimated globally.
The IB note blamed these “questionable statistics” on the lopsided sample size: 17,000 respondents were surveyed in India while the next highest sample size was only 2,000 for nine countries such as Russia, Bangladesh and Pakistan. In other survey countries, typically, 1,000 face-to-face interviews were conducted.
According to IB, leading US senators Bob Corker and Ben Cardin “accorded credibility to these questionable statistics by using them in official pronouncements” just prior to the PM’s visit in June 2016.