Foundational Issues & Root Causes for Modern Day Slavery
After two years of research on slave labor around the world while I was writing my book, I felt that I had a pretty good understanding of WHAT was happening with slave labor today. But, it wasn't until I immersed myself with the people who live this life, that I scratched the surface on WHY modern day slavery can exist as it does. It took living in the facilities, visiting their work environments, eating in their homes, laughing and playing with the kids, listening to personal stories, and discussing the hard issues head on.
I tried to get a sense as to what lack of dignity really means, to feel the shame of castes, and to get a sense of how the desperation of true poverty can lead to sometimes cruel decisions. I don't profess to understand what all these means, but I believe I gained a sense of appreciation how complex this issue really is. I will try to share what I have learned here.
India is estimated to have a third of the world's poor. By international standards 33% of the Indian population falls below the poverty line of $1.25 per day and almost 70% live on under $2.00 per day. These are just numbers and statistics.
This type of deep poverty means everyday is about survival. Primary concerns are getting food for the children with a little left over for themselves. So what happens when there is no money for food for days on end? What happens if a family members gets hurt or becomes ill? What choices do these people have, but to beg to the wealthy members of the village community and ask for help. The issue is that this opens them up for exploitation. The landowners, factory owners, etc. can easily take advantage of these people; pay them close to nothing while taking advantage of their lack of education to distort the amounts.
Some people question whether debt bondage is really slavery. These people have no where else to go; if they do not show up for work the owners find them and punish them, they are made to work 15+ hours a day, 7 days a week with no breaks except food. Many are given only one piece of clothing and many are not allowed to wear real clothes at all. They are made to feel like they owe and thus they must do whatever is asked of them. Period. Some of the people we spoke to who were pulled into labor at a young age, did not even realize what was happening to them. They just did what they were told and believed whatever was told to them. If they were mistreated, they felt they deserved it. They focus on survival without the knowledge to help them get out of poverty and create a life for themselves and their families.
Without solving for the issue of poverty, helping people escape from one land or factory owner will be a temporary fix, as they will likely fall victim to another exploitation due to the same fundamental issues of survival.
The Caste System
I remember hearing in school in India that the caste system no longer exists in India and that this was something of the past, but there is no issue with castes today. This does seem to be more accurate in the urban cities, but in the rural communities, the caste system is as alive as ever. Issues for the Dalit communties and for other tribal groups such as the Tadias.
First, some basic facts:
- The Hindu caste system was created more than 3,000 years ago by invading Aryan tribes to prevent pollution of their race.
- The four main castes are:
- Brahmins - priests and teachers
- Kshatriyas - rulers and soldiers
- Vaisyas - merchants and traders
- Sudras - laborers and servants
- The Untouchables (Dalits) fall beneath this structure and are considered less than human.
- There are approximately 300 million people who are deemed "untouchable"
Despite the legal protections, the many in the Dalit community have been unable to escape their fate and are deprived of even the most basic liberties and privileges, including the freedom to decide where to live, work and worship. The meaning of the name Dalit says so much about how this group of people are treated and how they have come to feel about themselves. The word is derived from Sanskrit, and means "ground", "suppressed", "crushed", or "broken to pieces".
Since the 1950s, India has made several positive changes to address this issue and created laws and social initiatives to protect the Dalit community and improve their socio-economic conditions. But even today there is still the residual effect of the caste system that lingers in DNA of the society. Many Dalit children can have trouble going to the same school as the people from other castes. One of the main leaders of Jeevika, who is a Dalit, described how many times he was rejected when wanting to move into a non-Dalit community. He finally was able to find someone to lease to him, but many of the neighbors refuse to interact with them and make them feel they are inferior in all their gestures. People consider them "dirty" and refuse to enter their homes or have them touch their food or belongings. Many rural villages have rules for the Dalits designed to "keep them down", such as not being allowed to ever wear pants. They can only wear the traditional lungi or shorts. We heard a story about how a village was outraged, not when some of the Dalits from other communities started giving awareness speeches to the Dalits in the village, but the real anger flared when a few started wearing pants.
The caste system operates at such a sub-concious level with the aim of keeping these people "in their place of serving the others". It is very deep rooted in the people over the generations, especially within the Dalit communities themselves, which is why so many become easy prey for exploitation and abuse.
The Hindu religion has a few philosophies that can often be misused to justify the situations of others. One of the hardest things I have struggled to understand is how people, who are not "evil by nature" can be so comfortable taking advantage of others or just turning a blind eye to others.
One philosophy called 'karma', I think has a lot to do with this. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English defines it as the "sum of person's actions in one of his successive states of existence, viewed as deciding his fate for the next". The Hindu religion believes in life after death, and karma from this life determines the type of life the person gets in their next life. For example, if the karma of an individual is good enough, the next birth will be rewarding, and if not, the person may actually devolve and degenerate into a lower life form or at minimum have an unrewarding next birth. Every person is responsible for his or her acts and thoughts, so each person's karma is entirely his or her own. This all roughly translates into a philosophy that says: "People get what they deserve". So, if someone is suffering they are just paying off their bad karma from a prior life.
Dharma comes from the Sanskrit root "dhri", which means to uphold or to sustain. It can also be translated as duty or even righteousness, but the idea of dharma is far more complicated. The website www.sanskrit.org has a good definition in that the best way to think of dharma is to say, "that which upholds or sustains the positive order of things: the nation, the community, the family, and ultimately even the universe." At a social level, every individual has a particular dharma according to their place in life. If everyone performs their dharma then there will be order in the universe: children obey parents & parents look after children, everyone does what they are supposed to do. This includes the people of low birth performing the functions they are supposed to perform.
You can see the easy leap that is made with these two philosophies alone: The people who are in these positions are paying off their own karma/sins, and if they do what they are supposed to do according to their dharma, they will reap the benefits in their next life. There is an underlying comfort that can be derived from these philosophies there is a certain natural order to the world and that the right thing to do is to just follow the rules of what we are supposed to do in life and all will be well.
Corruption and Politics
Corruption is prevalent in this process which aids the propitiation of modern day slave labor in India. Especially in the villages, where many members of the Panchayat are also the prosperous citizens of the community (often the land owners or their relations). In addition, many other key government officials under the District Commissioner and also many times the police themselves are all in very favorable terms with the land and factory owners.
This makes it much more difficult for people to stand up for themselves. We heard several stories where the individual will be punished/beaten or given death threats when they have tried to break the corruption in the system. We also heard fantastic success stories where the people pooled together and created unions, strikes, and sit-ins, sometimes leveraging the help of the media, to put pressure on the government officials to do the right thing.
Public policy can also be an issue. For example, one way to provide less money and incentives to the poor is to show that the number of people under the poverty line is decreasing. If this were really the case that would be great, but India's Planning Commission in 2012 just did this by further reducing the poverty line down to Rs 28.65 (about 55 cents) per capita daily consumption in cities and Rs 22.42 in rural areas.
The US State Department places each country in the 2013 TIP Report onto one of four tiers. India is currently at a Tier 2 which are for countries whose governments do not fully comply with the minimum standards but are making significant efforts to bring themselves into compliance with those standards. . It is the execution against these policies that is the most difficult to do.
Slavery Supports Industries Worth Billions of Dollars
I did not do much of my own research on the business side of this issue, but there are some excellent information out there with many of the sites I have listed in the "Organizations" page. Here are a few that describe the point the best.
(Source: Underground Railroad Freedom Center)
At its heart, slavery is an inhuman perversion of a simple economic principle: the best way to maximize profits is by minimizing the cost of labor. In today’s global economy, the seemingly inexhaustible demand for cheap goods and services has created a vast, largely invisible market for easily replenished supplies of men, women and children who are forced to work against their will, for little or no pay, and under constant threat of violence or intimidation.
Forced labor is present throughout the world and takes many forms. The enslaved work as field hands harvesting crops, as seamstresses in back-alley sweatshops, as kidnapped fishermen or child soldiers, and as common laborers so deeply in debt that their obligation can never be repaid. Increasingly, the enslaved are women and children – mostly teenage girls, and younger – caught up in the global sex industry of prostitution, pornography and pedophilia.
According to the respected International Labor Organization (ILO), there are at least 12.3 million people in some form of forced labor --- in other words, about four of every 1,000 people in the global work force are enslaved. About 12% of these (1.4 million) are involved in commercial sexual exploitation.
The Free the Slaves website has a fantastic video that gets to the heart of this issue better than I could try and explain.
Dignity & Identity
Several of the people I spent time with described debt bondage as the "bondage was in my mind".
Fundamental issues of basic human dignity and self identity seem to be core to this issue. Anita Reddy, from Dwaraka, taught me about this after we spent a couple of days meeting with her team and visiting revitalized urban slums and rural communities. For all the reason mentioned on the root cause section on this page, this community is at high risk of being exploited and abused. Issues of caste, religion philosophies, and poverty reinforce a demeaning impression of ones self. Many of these people are never shown basic respect and come to believe that they do not deserve it.
Through the awareness programs (like we saw with Dwaraka and Jeevika), the human spirit was revitalized. The people who became aware of the facts and their rights began to form their own voice. This voice, once given, cannot be taken away...and this voice is contagious. Each person we met seemed dedicated to sharing their knowledge with the next generation and to other communities.
The ability to have a self identity with goals and dreams specific to one's true calling (vs a preset definition based on birth) is a very powerful thing. Identity through having a home is a very important part of this, which is why the urban slum initiatives that Dwaraka has been doing for decades have been so powerful. The places where the people own their home (or are on a path for ownership), show much more care and pride in their home and community, and are increasingly focused on the education of their children to further their economic progress. The pride of a home is part of the personal identity and the feeling of self-worth and dignity.
Much of the awareness programs is about creating the sense of dignity and identity. Through songs, dance, and play-acting they reinforce the messages that they matter and that they have rights. They show they have a responsibility to fight for those rights not only for themselves, but for their community and their families.
The fire I saw in the eyes of the new young leaders was inspiring... they are filled with confidence, they speak with conviction and strength, and they sincerely care about others in their extended community.