Prior to starting in my current role I was clueless about the suffering of those trapped in the vicious network of human trafficking and bonded labour. I had no idea that human trafficking was the third largest global criminal enterprise with a staggering profit of USD 140 billion (according to the ILO report of 2014). The “Business Today” on June 25, 2018 reported that the Indian Oil Corporation, the largest Indian company had a profit the previous fiscal of Rs 191 billion which at an exchange rate of Rs. 65 works out to only USD 2.9 billion. Apple one of the three largest companies in the world reported a profit of USD 45.7 billion in 2017. These startling numbers began to pull the veil off my eyes as I have slowly begun to understand the size and profitability of the enterprise.
It’s a criminal enterprise though where the commodity is humans — people like you and me but unlike us disadvantaged by social and economic factors, exploited by richer and more powerful people, harmed and enslaved into situations that had they known fully about they’d never have entered in.
Mohan and Prema (names changed) were a couple who got enslaved in this spider’s web of trafficking. A local panchayat leader had pointed them to an agent who could assure them of a good job in the city. They were given a few thousand rupees and promised many more in jobs in the big city. Instead they were carted off to a rural poultry farm some 50 kms away and made to work long and tiresome hours. With no place to stay Prema had to stay awake most nights as she feared for the life of her child. Housed alongside the chickens with scorpions and snakes as potential visitors, no sleep, insufficient food and exhausting work this couple was soon a vestige of their former happy selves. I remember the day we walked into that poultry farm with the local government and helped them start their return back to their home state and a firm commitment never to be deceived again.
I can’t ever forget their faces, the despair that turned to hope, the foreboding that transformed to confidence and the suffering that was replaced by a quiet dignity. And this is the proverbial iceberg of the problem. We are only scratching the surface. We know that but its by starting to scratch that we’ll begin to find out what’s beneath the surface.
The challenge of trafficking for labour is huge but the greater challenge is the one of the human heart. How will we win enough minds and hearts to take an interest in and speak against the issue? That’s the challenge my colleagues and I are currently working on. Our State government has taken some big strides in recent years to deal with the issue of labour trafficking and bonded labour but so much more is needed. So many more workers are needed.
This is a work that enervates the best of us. It has been an exhausting season of climbing uphill in the footsteps of Sisyphus from Greek mythology who was condemned in Tartarus to an eternity of rolling a boulder uphill then watching it roll back down again. How do we keep pushing back again in the hope that this time the boulder will cross the tipping point? How can we strengthen the hands and backs of workers who give themselves so passionately to this Sisyphian task — day in and day out? In a new series, we want to explore here on this collective the “Journey of Justice Workers”. The joys, aches and challenges they face and how we can together celebrate and overcome. We hope to make it interactive, get inputs from colleagues as we write them up and start a conversation with you the reader. Our aim is to help sustain those of us who are often staggered by the suffering.
Indrajeet Pawar leads the IJM Bangalore team that work with the State Government and other NGOs to advocate and activate the eradication of human trafficking and bonded labour. He loves reading and road trips is married to Manju and they have three children.