Blind implementation of four controversial labour codes may exacerbate modern day slavery in India

Since COVID-19 crisis and subsequent economic downturn have pushed millions into poverty and extreme poverty, India needs to be extra alert on the issue of forced labour

Representational image
Representational image

Dr Gyan Pathak

A joint statement by G7 Trade Ministers has signalled that they are going to harden their stand to eradicate use of all forms of forced labour in global supply chains, including State-sponsored forced labour of vulnerable groups and minorities in the agricultural, solar, and garment sectors.

The COVID-19 crisis has made the situation worse than they have acknowledged in their statement that on any given day there are about 25 million people subject to forced labour worldwide. India has much to worry, since the Global Slavery Index of 2018 had estimated about 8 million people living in modern slavery in the country in 2016, and prevalence of victims were 6.1 for every thousand people.

The statement specifically mentioned the ILO report of 2019 titled ‘Ending child labour, forced labour and human trafficking in global supply chains’ in which India had also figured. They have affirmed that there is no place for forced labour in the rule-based multilateral trading system, and called on all countries, multilateral institutions and businesses to work together, including with survivors of forced labour, to eradicate forced labour from global supply chains.

G7 Trade Ministers have recognised that trade policy can be one of the important tools in a comprehensive approach to prevent, identify, and eliminate forced labour in global supply chain. They further recognised that forced labour is a global problem and effective action should be based on international labour standards, the UN Guiding Principles of Business and Human Rights (UNGP), and international standards on responsible business conduct, including collective efforts in multilateral institutions such as the United Nations (UN), especially the International Labour Organisations (ILO), and Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD).

It may be mentioned that the ILO report of 2019 prepared jointly with OECD, IOM, and UNICEF, had given an example of India while discussing “downward pressure on wages”, which has now reached an unprecedentedly low level in over 18 months of the COVID-19 pandemic. “Severe cost and price pressures can lead suppliers to lower labour costs in a manner that increases the risk of child labour, forced labour and human trafficking,” it said.

In the face of these pressures, supplier firms may seek to lower labour costs through underpaying workers, imposing illegal deductions, imposing penalties and fines, or non-payment of wages altogether.

The ILO report had given example of forced labour in the tea industry in India highlighting the links between cost pressures and forced labour. The study found that workers were experiencing widespread labour exploitation, including underpayment and manipulation of wages. Elements of forced labour, such as debt bondage, physical violence, threats, and verbal or sexual abuse, were reported by workers. Cost pressures were identified as a key driver of these practices.

The study found that the demand of tea plantation owners for exploited labour was driven by the low prices they received for tea, relative to rising costs, which introduced pressure to cut costs. Input costs were going up including machinery, petrol, diesel, and labour and margins were tight.

The report also mentioned labour subcontracting, production quotas, outsourcing, pressure around delivery time, overtime, etc contributing to modern day slavery.

The pandemic has exacerbated all the conditions for modern day slavery in India, and therefore, Modi government need to be more careful while implementing the four controversial labour codes.

The latest Global Slavery Index (GSI) also reflected the addition of forced sexual exploitation and children in modern slavery, but did not included figures on organ trafficking or the use of children in armed conflict. The GSI 2018 mentioned, on the basis of National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) of India data, that most of the rescued victims reported being trafficked for the purpose of forced labour, followed by sexual exploitation for prostitution and other forms.

As for the forced labour, the GSI mentions about existence of bonded labour though it is formally abolished and criminalized in India. Agents are luring families and individuals largely from rural areas and send them to work in urban areas in forced labour conditions. Lifelong debt bondage is one of such conditions.

Since COVID-19 crisis and subsequent economic downturn have pushed millions into poverty and extreme poverty, India needs to be extra alert on the issue of forced labour, especially regarding the low income states like Jharkhand, Odisha, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, and Madhya Pradesh, where 62 per cent of India’s poorer lived before the pandemic struck the country last year. The people of these states constitute majority of the migrant workers in the country. Only a coverage under social protection scheme can protect them from forced labour.

Children of Indian seasonal migrant workers are a particularly vulnerable group as they face barriers accessing education due to the isolation of the work sites where their parents work. Consequently, they result in ending up working alongside their parents.

Since more than 90 per cent of India’s total workforce is engaged in informal sector, they are particularly vulnerable to forced work and other abuses. The pandemic has increased their vulnerability. The present legal framework will remain insufficient unless the employers exploiting the workforce are penalized and their products and services are banned from public procurements

It will be in the best interest of the workforce, the nation, and its trade in the global supply chain.

Economic recovery must be made labour centred rather than the lust for profit. Policy responses need to be multi-faceted and comprehensive, addressing not only forced labour itself, but also the factors underlying it, as suggested by ILO report. Such policy responses may include strengthening labour inspection, addressing socio-economic vulnerability, providing for fair recruitment, freedom of association and collective bargaining, and generally promoting decent work.

(IPA Service)

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