Forced Labour

Ever since the beginning of human civilisation, forced labour has been in existence. Almost all the ancient monuments, be it Taj Mahal or Asokan Pillar or the pyramids of Egypt or the Great wall of China, at which we marvel, were built on the basis of forced labour. During pre-capitalist days it was to be indispensable for carrying on production. With the abolition of slavery in America in the 1860s, it has been regarded as anachronism in modern capitalism, more so after it has entered the present phase of globalisation. Yet it persists, according to a report by the Director-General of International Labour Organisation (ILO), released on May 11. It is surprising that both the print and the electronic media in India have, by and large, ignored it.

At the very outset, the report making the shocking revelation: “Forced labour is present in some form in almost all countries, and in every kind of economy. There are persistent cases of what may be termed “traditional” forms of forced labour. These include deeply entrenched bonded labour systems in parts of South Asia, debt bondage affecting mainly indigenous peoples in parts of Latin America, and the residual slavery-related practices most evident today in West Africa. There are also various forms of forced labour exacted by the State for either economic or political purposes. Forced labour today also affects sizeable number of migrant workers who are transported away from their countries or communities of their origin.”  

The ILO report has taken great pains to define “forced labour”. According to it, forced labour consists of “all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily.” Obviously, there is a great deal of coercion involved. Remove this element of coercion and the supply of forced labour vanishes. It must be remembered that a worker cannot be put in the category of forced labour simply because he or she receives low wages or working conditions are miserable. Nor does forced labour imply the situation where there are no better jobs available and a person is compelled to continue in his existing position by his own economic compulsions. In fact, an indispensable element in the definition of forced labour is a severe violation of human rights and restrictions on human freedom. In other words, the person falling in the category of forced labour does not enjoy the freedom of choice of vocation or the place of work. His freedom of movement is severely restricted by exercising force against him. This may be political, economic or social force. Obviously, a great element of coercion is involved. Remove this coercion by doing away with the conditions that sustain it and labour moves out of its present vocation or can remain there only on terms and conditions acceptable by it.

The ILO report has found that in the present era of globalisation, the older forms of coercion and compulsion are transmuting themselves into newer ones. “The bonded labour systems of South Asia remain very much in evidence today, and account for the greatest number of forced labourers in the contemporary world. But these systems have changed over the past three or four decades. They now pervade different sectors of the informal economy, as well as the agricultural sector, where the lion’s share of bonded labour was formerly to be found. Trafficking in human beings has also taken on new forms and dimensions, linked to recent developments in technology, transportation and transnational organised crime.”

Over the centuries, the nature and characteristics of forced labour have undergone far-reaching changes. In olden days, the state and feudal lords by virtue of their ownership of land exacted much of the forced labour. In India, zamindars, jagirdars, talukedars, etc. and government officials were largest appropriators of forced labour. As a result of land reforms and a specific stipulation in the law of the land against forced labour, the situation has radicallychanged. At present, the private persons and organisations are the biggest perpetuators of the system of forced labour. In fact, “induced indebtedness is a key instrument of coercion, backed by the threat of violence or other sanctions against forced workers or their families.” Millions of men, women and children migrate from one region of a country to another or go out to some other country in search of livelihood. Most of the time people migrating to other countries do not possess firm legal documents or work permits, This makes them vulnerable to coercion and all sorts of exploitation by agents and corrupt officials. In our own country, Bangladeshi workers have been all the time living under the coercion of corrupt police people and Hindu communal elements. The constant threat of denunciation to authorities hangs on their heads. More or less this is the situation of illegal immigrants into Western countries, especially America. Thus they are forced to choose between highly exploitative working conditions and deportation to the countries of their origin. In side our own country, we have seen how regional and communal biases are used to impose exploitative conditions of work.

In the present era of globalisation, trafficking in human beings has assumed great proportions. Women and children are forced to entertain their employers sexually and otherwise. Some years ago, it came to light that agents took children from the Indian subcontinent to the gulf countries where they were strapped on the backs of camels, taking part in a race. The greater the cries of these children, the greater was the entertainment of the rich witnessing the race. Quite a number of children used to sustain fatal injuries.

At present, at least 12.3 million people all over the world are victims of forced labour. Of these 9.8 million are exploited by private agents, including more than 2.4 million in forced labour as a result of human trafficking. State and rabid military groups account for 2.5 million forced labourers. Most of the forced labour is accounted for by Asia and Pacific region. Their share comes to 9.49 million. The share of Latin America and the Caribbean region is 1.32 million. Industrialised countries too are not free of forced labour. They have 360,000 forced workers. sub-Saharan Africa, Middle East and North Africa and the transition countries have 660,000, 260,000, and 210, 000 respectively. Obviously no region or no economic system is free from this evil.

State imposed forced labour is largely in the times of emergency and used for military purposes. A major form has always been conscription. Private sector uses forced labour broadly for commercial sexual exploitation and for commercial economic exploitation. Private agents recruit people by doling out false promises and painting bright prospects. They arrange for travel documents and work permits, which are, in many cases, forged. They also provide transportation or smuggling into the countries of destination. Sometimes, the rickety boats capsize or are seized by coast guards and the recruits have to suffer extreme consequences. The boat tragedies on the coast of Malta or in the territorial waters of Italy and Australia have quite often made newspaper headlines.

For the first time, the ILO has come out with the estimate of the profits from the exploitation of trafficked men, women and children. It comes to $32 billion per annum or an average of $13,000 from every single trafficked forced labour. In the words of Juan Somavia, the Director-General of the ILO, “Forced labour represents the underside of globalisation and denies people their basic rights and dignity. To achieve a fair globalisation and decent work for all, it is imperative to eradicate forced labour.”

The Report is going to be discussed in June at the ILO’s International Labour Conference. In view of this, trade unions, political parties and persons like Swami Agniwesh need to organise discussions to think of ways and measures to eradicate the evil of forced labour, which has great visible presence in our country.

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