A report by the United Nations Human Rights Council’s Special Rapporteur on Slavery, presented at the ongoing 45th session of the Geneva-headquartered UN body earlier this week, included reference to India’s migrant crisis during the Covid-19 lockdown, and says the internal migration of more than 100 million people deprived them economically, exposed them to indebtedness and police brutality, and stigamtised them.
In its reply, India said it was not consulted by the Special Rapporteur. “We firmly believe that specific references to a State in context of a global problem and that too in a thematic report should be best avoided or should be made after prior consultation with the state concerned to make a factual and objective assessment,” an official of India’s Permanent Mission to the UN at Geneva.
In his reported titled ‘Impact of coronavirus pandemic on contemporary forms of slavery and slavery-like practices’ presented to the Council, Special Rapporteur Tomaya Obokata stated: “In India, Covid-19 measures forced more than 100 million internal migrant workers, many of whom belong to minorities and certain castes, to travel long distances home. In addition to being exposed to economic deprivation and indebtedness, many were reportedly subjected to police brutality and stigmatised as virus ‘carriers’.”
The observation was made under the sub-head ‘Minority groups, indigenous peoples and people affected by caste-based discrimination’. The report also stated that some countries have witnessed an increase in discrimination and violence against minority groups, such as the Roma communities in Europe and the Dalits in Nepal.
The 45th session of the UNHRC that began on September 14 in Geneva will conclude on October 6. The report placed before the Council also named India among the countries in which labour laws protecting the worker had been relaxed amid the pandemic making informal workers even more vulnerable. Listing out ‘Dismantled labour laws and failing reporting and oversight mechanisms’, Obokata, who was appointed special rapporteur in May, wrote in his findings, “Despite an increasing body of evidence suggesting that the Covid-19 outbreak has resulted in severe, adverse impacts on the health, dignity and rights of workers globally, their ability to report abuse has been limited as mechanisms and legal protections of their rights appear to be increasingly failing. Labour rights and social protection regulations are reportedly being removed or relaxed in some countries, extending the workday or suspending laws that regulate the minimum wage and protect freedom of association. Examples of such policies, risking further erosion of working conditions, were reported in China, India, Saudi Arabia and Vietnam, as well as some States in Latin America,” the report stated.
The 20-page report that contained the Special Rapporteur’s reflections on and analysis of the impact that the coronavirus has had on contemporary forms of slavery and slavery-like practices, stated: “Based on estimates by ILO (International Labour Organisation), almost 1.6 billion informal economy workers have suffered massive damage to their capacity to earn a living due to lockdown measures and/or because they work in the hardest-hit sectors.”
The report read, “Those living in low-income and middle-income countries will be particularly affected, as informal employment represents 90 per cent of total employment in low-income countries and 67 per cent of total employment in middle-income countries. More workers will incur debts in order to survive, a trend already observed among informal workers in India and employees of brick kiln factories in Pakistan. As a consequence, the risk of becoming trapped in debt bondage increases.”
The report said that the through his country visits and thematic reports, the Special Rapporteur intends to place the focus of the mandate on groups that are at particular risk of being exposed to contemporary forms of slavery and require increased attention and protection. “They include, but are not limited to, people on the move, including labour migrants, refugees and internally displaced persons; stateless persons; minorities and indigenous peoples; persons with disabilities; older persons; and persons who are homeless, including children living on the street.”
In his statement addressed to the Council, on September 15, Obokata said, “I myself have not been able to undertake a country visit yet, although I have already issued visit requests to countries including Mauritania, India, Nepal, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Qatar, Kuwait, Canada and Fiji. I look forward to positive responses from them.”
In response to the report, Vimarsh Aryan, First Secretary, Permanent Mission of India in Geneva, told the HRC, “We agree with the Special Rapporteur that the unprecedented crisis caused by Covid-19 has affected all segments of the population on a global scale. But the social and economic consequences of the outbreak have been particularly detrimental to those who were already in vulnerable situations before the crisis… We have taken note of a couple of references made in the report to the situation of internal migrant workers, workers in informal sector and on labour laws in my country. We were not consulted by the Special Rapporteur before making these references and therefore, did not have the opportunity to provide him with the necessary information. We firmly believe that specific references to a State in context of a global problem and that too in a thematic report should be best avoided or should be made after prior consultation with the state concerned to make a factual and objective assessment.”
Addressing the Council, Aryan said, “The guiding motto of India’s Covid-19 response has been Jaan bhi, Jahan bhi with focus on saving both lives and livelihood. India remains fully committed to support the SR in fulfilment of his mandate and has contributed USD 50,000 to the UN Voluntary Trust Fund on contemporary forms of slavery.”
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