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
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
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