July 20, 2018

Anti-trafficking Initiatives and Resurrecting Indentured Labour

(Note: This post is primarily about the intersect between the raid/rescue model & NRPFesque policies in the context of DV and the shape which laws governing the field could be made to assume in the future.)


Indian trafficking law is a complex mix of constitutional law guaranteeing the impermissibility of the practice of human trafficking, criminal law, and labour law. It is consolidated nowhere but finds mention piecemeal across a number of statutes.

Criminal laws in the field have tended to try to protect trafficked persons (questionably, sometimes from themselves by refusing to acknowledge their ability to consent to acts in relation to themselves) while labour laws have generally tended to attempt to realise the hope of being able to engineer a more equitable society through the instrumentality of the law (with varying degrees of success, to put it mildly).

In consequence, Indian law has not thus far single-mindedly pursued a strategy of removal and rescue. That strategy is largely the brainchild of Western neo-abolitionism developed in consonance with philanthro-capitalism, and it can easily manifest as indentured labour redux with state complicity.

In its earlier avatar, the horrors of supposedly-legal indentured labour practised by colonial powers were experienced by colonised peoples particularly after the nominal abolition of slavery. In contemporary times, the model in vogue doesn't promote forced, unremunerated labour quite as blatantly. Instead, trafficked persons may be removed from the environs they find themselves in, ostensibly in support of their human rights, following raids possibly conducted by law enforcement. However, despite such removal, the country in which trafficked persons are rescued may not force traffickers to pay them adequate reparations or afford them adequate rehabilitation opportunities itself.  

Even if traffickers are jailed, at the micro level, retribution devoid of reparation does not immediately help trafficked persons to rebuild their world. And, at a macro level, non-payment means that, if the trafficked persons have crossed international borders and are subsequently deported (of course, at state behest), the money which they should have been paid likely remains in the country in which those who trafficked them have benefited from their unpaid labour, the country in which they were ostensibly rescued. Due to this, the “fight against modern slavery” could this easily resurrect one of the least appealing facets of what was once the coalition of colonialism and capitalism: forced, virtually unremunerated labour extracted from the world's least privileged people.

The problems which the raid and "rescue" model can potentially cause become exceptionally clear if persons are trafficked across international borders by those with whom they share a domestic relationship. This is simply because, should such trafficked persons report abuse and not have the necessary paperwork to remain where they are being abused without their traffickers’ aid, far from receiving support, they could well find themselves being deported perhaps to another abusive situation. And, so, the model could well disincentivise abused persons from reporting abuse and force them to endure in horrific conditions. In effect, the model has the potential to result in states setting up Rape and Assault Facilitation Services in the name of anti-trafficking operations or in lieu of immigration and border forces whether or not that is their intention.

Even where domestic violence isn't part of the equation, a person forced to work in a factory, for example, may be far better served by strong labour laws and, if required, sympathetic immigration laws which ensure humane conditions and fair pay for work should they want to continue working instead of being “rescued” and bring deprived of a job and, possibly, what little safety they have in the process. This chance that there could be alternatives to being “rescued” that trafficked persons may prefer is one which the largely-Western crusade against “modern slavery” has almost consistently failed to recognise much less facilitate.

Together, neo-abolitionism and philanthrocapitalism tend to exhibit enthusiasm to uni-dimensionally measure the success of anti-trafficking measures by counting "rescues" in the field of the messy, uncountable complexities of human life. What they display a distinct lack of enthusiasm for is the prospect of engaging with individuals, valuing their lives, listening to individual aspirations, and attempting to accord respect to the desires humans beings at the individual level so as to facilitate the best possible outcomes for them, outcomes which may not involve what could well be ham-handed rescues.

Unfortunately, the lines of thought which support the raid and “rescue” model have not been entirely contained within the West. India's proposed law on trafficking appears to pay homage to it. One can only hope that better sense prevails and that Indian strategies to address trafficking do not sink to the level of merely counting supposed rescues.