Of Human Bondage
New Internationalist 337 August 2001
THIS MONTH'S THEME
Dressed in their Sunday best, all navy blue and peach, Domenica and Tara squint at me in the glare of the noonday sun. Unsure of what is expected of them and mesmerized by the tape recorder, they come over all awkward and giggly. But they soon recover and start rattling off their stories at a breathless pace.
Ten years ago they travelled over 500 kilometres from the same village in central India to work as domestic helpers in Mumbai (formerly Bombay). Both 12 at the time and from poor families, they knew this was expected of them.
Domenica landed on her feet. Her employers, on the whole, have treated her with respect – right up to her current family with whom she eats at the same table. This is a remarkable exception in India, where servitude is expected of domestic workers and their lives are kept strictly distinct. They wear hand-me-down clothing; they eat leftovers or different meals altogether; they use separate utensils, seats and toilets. Often they’re made to sleep in corridors or in the kitchen, or outside a locked front door.
Tara’s experience was nightmarish but she speaks of it with equanimity – she knows it is hardly unusual. ‘I used to feel very hungry. My madam would serve me once and never bother to ask again if I wanted more to eat. Sometimes she even forgot to give me food but I would just keep quiet and say nothing.
‘I wasn’t allowed to speak to anyone, not even the people downstairs. They wouldn’t let me go out on my own, I would always have to accompany them. I started work at 5:30 in the morning. When I finished, my madam would send me to her mother’s place to work.’
When it all got too much for Tara and she decided to return home, the salary owing to her was withheld along with her few possessions.
She was soon back in Mumbai, working for an elderly teacher in a joint family set-up where everyone felt free to make demands on her. ‘She wouldn’t let me sit down the whole day. All the time do this, do that. I would say, “I need to go to the toilet” and she would say, “Don’t take too long.” She would knock on the door to make me hurry up. I had to stay in the kitchen all the time.’ Forbidden to speak to outsiders, given little to eat, made to work at all hours of the day for numerous people, Tara was a virtual slave.
Or was she? She doesn’t think so herself. Grossly exploited for sure, but she was always paid the agreed salary and was free to leave. Testimony to her pluck is that despite being miles from her family with few resources at her disposal, she often did.
Tara shared this common destiny of gross exploitation with hundreds of millions of people worldwide – working in sweatshops, on farms, in homes and on the streets. Her experience, and theirs, shares some of the characteristics one would normally associate with slavery. But one has to travel further down the spectrum of exploitation to arrive at a true definition of the word.
Notions of ‘wage slavery’ or the routine connotations of child labour must be disregarded. Paramount is the issue of choice – is the person free to leave? The key elements are that the slave is:
. forced to work for no pay or a pittance through mental or physical threat
What is clear as we enter the 21st century is that millions of our fellow humans exist in a state to which the term slavery can be applied. The best estimate available is a conservative figure – about 27 million people – a little short of the population of Canada.1 This is higher than during the heyday of the colonial slave trade. When compared to estimates of slavery at the end of World War Two, the number of slaves today has grown tenfold.2 With a plentiful supply around the globe of people so poor, so vulnerable, so disenfranchised and so discriminated against that there is no safety net to stop their freefall, it is little wonder that slavery is thriving. A veritable chasm of absolute poverty has opened up beneath the old faultlines of caste and race. (Kevin Bales surveys the nature of the new slavery and the extent to which slave labour greases the wheels of an increasingly globalized world economy in greater detail in 'Going cheap'.)
Slavery today is fluid and slave ownership more ‘flexible’. People may be enslaved for relatively short periods of time, until their economic value is exploited, and then thrown on the slag heap. They may be slaves for life, trapped into debt bondage. Or, less commonly, they may be chattel slaves, owned outright, as in Mauritania and Niger. Then there are the masses of people who skirt the borderline, working long hours for little recompense, but who could easily slip into slavery if their fortunes take a further downturn.
‘In Mumbai according to government figures there are about 80,000 young girls (90 per cent of domestic workers are female) living in their employer’s home, on call day and night.’ A smaller, unknown number would be slaves, completely controlled by their ‘employers’, suffering violence, unable to escape. ‘A young girl away from home is insecure. You cannot say no to anything, you are forced to work, you don’t have any rights, any claim, any say. And no money to escape with.’
Most vulnerable to abuse are children under the age of 14, often brought from the villages by middleclass families who promise to care for them. Such young children are also invisible; the drama of their hellish lives playing out within the family home.
Sister Jeanne knows she is trying to push a mountain, but that doesn’t seem to deter her. ‘Domestic workers have no rights whatsoever – no fixed working hours or salary, no medical aid, no pension. There’s no minimum wage set by the government, it’s all arbitrary. They have no voice – since they are not recognized as workers they cannot organize themselves as a union.’ So the struggle of the DWM has to continue on many fronts, sometimes with bitter compromises.
Unable to unionize domestic workers, the DWM is concentrating on bringing them together so that they can share their experiences and build their self-esteem. Domestic workers have taken part in mass demonstrations to demand their rights and have sometimes taken direct action – workers in one entire building in Mumbai recently went on strike to protest the mistreatment of a colleague.
But the most obdurate obstacle is public opinion which accepts ‘servants’ as a class of people destined to fulfil demands, no matter how unreasonable. For me part of growing up in India was trying to train my eye to skim over the shabby clothes and dispirited demeanour of these shadowy people forever appearing with trays of refreshments or swabbing the floor at my friends’ houses. It is the same trained glance that people the world over use to look past people who shame us by their disadvantage. The DWM has the support of the media and public figures willing to endorse their cause, but hearts and minds are not so easily won in the face of convenience and profit.
Another struggle has been to get domestics recognized as workers by law. Under pressure by the United Nations, the International Labour Organization and tireless lobbying by the DWM, there have been some signs of progress in the states of Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Karnataka. The Central Government has prohibited government officials from employing children under 14 in their homes – but this is a far cry from legal recognition.
The DWM has also got involved in coaching women who set out to work abroad, taking a few basic steps to make them a little less vulnerable. The organization informs them beforehand of the location of the Indian consulate and makes sure they have a copy of their passport so they don’t surrender their real passports to their employers.
Working on many fronts, without the frame of legally guaranteed rights, the DWM’s gains have been modest. But where it is most vibrant is in the attitude of young women like Tara and Domenica who are full of fighting spirit and convinced of their ability to say no. The battle in their own minds has been won.
Take a breezy ride on a suburban train out of Mumbai and a bone-rattling trip by rickshaw to a village called Usgaon and there’s a chance to witness the fruits of a revolution. Usgaon is the headquarters of Shramajeevi Sangathana (literally ‘Union of Those who Live by their Labour’) and initial impressions of its sprawling, tree-shaded complex can be confusing. Midmorning, an air of desertion hangs about the place – staff in the main office chat amongst themselves and there are few other signs of life until people descend from all directions for lunch. They greet each other with ‘Zindabad!’ (‘Long live!’) and a raised fist. By late afternoon, staff who’ve been visiting the outlying villages are back and the office is buzzing as a stream of farm workers, their day’s labour finished, come in to consult about a variety of problems – ranging from getting legal title to land to loans for seeds and fertilizer.
In the villages of the Vasai region, in which Usgaon falls, the system was so deeply entrenched it was invisible to the casual observer. Landlords claiming high-caste Brahmin descent owned most of the land and employed the indigenous adivasi people for peanuts to work their farms. A small proportion of these would fall into debt bondage and be completely controlled by the owner – even their wives and children would end up working for the landlord.
Today debt bondage is the major form of slavery in the world: the UN Working Group on Contemporary Forms of Slavery estimates about 20 million people are caught in its clutches. India has the dubious distinction of claiming at least 10 million of those.
For Keshav Nankar (right), today the Executive Chair of Shramajeevi Sangathana and the head of its agriculture department, a life of bondage began at the age of eight when his father asked the landlord for a loan. ‘The landlord gave him the money but took me in return. He asked my father, “What would your child do in school?” and “How will he feed himself?” He said, “Remove him from school, send him here to look after my cattle and I will give him one meal a day.”’
Keshav recalls that whenever he talked of being returned to his family, the landlord would mention a blanket that he had given his father. Keshav worked three years to pay off that blanket. Even the promised wage of 10 rupees a month (less than 25 cents), was never paid. When Keshav reached adulthood and got married his whole family were enlisted to pay off the debt. ‘From dawn to midnight we used to fetch water, clean utensils, wash clothes, collect firewood and remove cow dung. We prepared the ground for sowing seeds, transplanted saplings, nurtured plants, harvested fields and husked grains. My wages were not sufficient to feed my family even once.’ When I ask Keshav why he never thought of running away, he gives me an indulgent smile before replying that with no money, no education and no experience of life beyond his village this wasn’t a possibility. And, he adds, all the landlords of the surrounding villages were related to each other, so it would have been impossible to stay undercover.
Janu Meghvale, the current President of the Sangathana, recalls how atrocities – including sexual assaults on women – were a regular occurrence. Everyone knew their place, even the chota maliks (‘little masters’, the landlords' children) gave orders freely. If an adivasi dared to wear trousers instead of the usual loincloth, the landlords would be outraged.
‘No-one could go anywhere without the master’s permission. If someone was ill they’d pay for the cheapest possible treatment. Because if it’s going to cost 5,000 rupees (slightly over $100), they could keep five slaves for that amount. They would just let them die. If you were ill and stayed at home, then the landlord’s goons would come to beat you up. If they saw that it was serious then they would demand that your father or your brother went to work in your place.’
Into this picture in 1979 came Vivek and Vidyullata Pandit, a young couple who began working in Bombay’s slums and then decided to focus their energies in the rural areas. Starting with a school, a medical centre and a goat- and pig-rearing scheme, it was a year before they even noticed bonded labour. They had been organizing a sports tournament for youngsters from surrounding villages when they ran into problems. They found that some of their star players wouldn’t come to practice in the evenings because they were forced to work. Vivek Pandit was horrified to discover that his uncle with whom they were staying also kept bonded labourers. Dropping their educational activities they started demanding the release of bonded labourers, but were met with suspicion from all sides. It was only when they were attacked by his uncle’s men that they finally gained the trust of the people they wanted to help.
The Pandits knew that bonded labour had been outlawed by the Indian Parliament in 1976 and realized that they had a legal fallback that could cut across the cosy nexus of landlords, gangsters, local politicians and the police. They knew also that no-one in the area was being paid the minimum wage, whether bonded or free. So in 1982 they began to demand that the landlords pay up. Tensions rose with the landlords preventing their labourers from attending the meetings. The Pandits called in the tehsildar (local official) who threatened the landlords with police action.
In 15 villages workers united to go on strike. ‘It was the rainy season,’ recalls Janu Meghvale. ‘The planting was just starting. The landlords thought: “These adivasis, they’ll come back with folded hands to touch our feet.” The agitation went on for 24 days. There was nothing to eat, but we would go into the forests and dig out wild onion and wild spinach – there are 70 different types of vegetables in the forest. The masters thought: “What are they eating? Why aren’t they coming back? They’ll die of hunger.” The crops started growing, reached a certain height and started falling over. There was no-one to plant them.’ Eventually the landlords started fighting amongst themselves with some willing to break away and pay the minimum wage. ‘Their unity was broken,’ says Janu, beaming. Victory was at hand.
Grabbing the reins
Nearly two decades later more than 450 villages have been freed from bonded labour. Farm workers earn above the minimum wage, the police force is kept in check after numerous protests against its excesses, and in a curious spectacle the landlords are turning to the Sangathana for advice on farming matters. Numerous farms are being co-operatively worked, sometimes rented from the former landlords but on the adivasis’ terms. Schools catering for the needs of children who graze goats and can’t keep regular hours are opening up, women have started savings groups, information camps have given people the low-down on their rights and people like Keshav have fought local elections.
‘We can work miracles,’ insists Vivek Pandit. And even a cynic like myself finds it hard to disagree. Although the Sangathana hasn’t made anyone rich – there wasn’t an ounce of fat on anybody in the villages I visited – it has made them secure. And supremely confident in the power of unified action.
Vivek Pandit has taken the fight against bonded labour to other Indian states and even to neighbouring Nepal. The Sangathana’s shining example has much to offer other struggles against slavery. But wherever slavery rears its hydra head each set of circumstances throws up different challenges. There is no easy abolitionist answer. For example, what activist route can be taken against slavery in a country like Mauritania which is closed to the outside world and where slavery is officially abolished, but rife in its most basic form of outright ownership of another person? And where the few brave souls who speak up against it are imprisoned? Where can we look for hope in a world where every member state of the United Nations has declared slavery illegal, yet new forms of it keep emerging and the sheer numbers of the enslaved keep growing?
I believe that hope comes not only from the strength and commitment of those fighting this ancient and modern curse, but from ordinary citizens who support such groups with their time and energy and who refuse to look away. It comes also from a growing awareness of just what depravity is in our midst. That hope must be used to prod governments who have the capacity and the power to bring swift change – but who have demonstrated remarkable lethargy. That hope must lead.
1 Kevin Bales, Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy (University of California Press, 1999).
This article is from
the August 2001 issue
of New Internationalist.
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