NEW DELHI, INDIA – The call to end modern-day slavery grew louder this week in India when government and NGO leaders convened to discuss the reality of forced labor. It was the first time an official national consultation has been dedicated to the issue since IJM began working in India to combat modern-day slavery more than a decade ago—and perhaps the first time ever.
The all-day meeting on Tuesday, October 8 was organized by the Indian government and the International Labor Organization. Several NGOs, including IJM, joined state and national government officials and India's National Human Rights Commission.
Government Leader Rallies Officials to Eradicate Forced Labor
The head of India's Ministry of Labour and Employment, Kodikunnil Suresh, admonished his agency to take "seriously" the reality of forced labor slavery in the country. The Ministry of Labour and Employment is one of the nation's oldest government agencies, and it is charged with protecting the interests of workers in general, particularly those from poor, deprived and disadvantaged sections of the society.
Minister of State Suresh stated his concern plainly before his peers: "I don't think Ministry of Labour and Employment is doing anything concrete on a large scale for the eradication of the problem." He called on the government agencies to work with state officials to come up with a practical plan—and implement it.
Suresh noted that the law against forced labor slavery—passed in 1976—requires regular meetings of vigilance committees. The individuals appointed to these committees are supposed to have actual authority to advise high-level state officials and ensure anti-slavery laws are being enforced. But the Minister of State pointed out that these vigilance committees either do not exist or are dysfunctional in many jurisdictions. He also cited a Supreme Court judgment passed in October 2012, which ordered states to conduct regular surveys to monitor incidences of forced labor.
Suresh praised the role of NGOs in taking action to end forced labor. IJM has partnered with a number of organizations to improve the process for identifying, rescuing and rehabilitating victims of forced labor in India.
A Milestone in India's Fight Against Slavery
During the meeting, Minster of State Suresh detailed some practical steps toward solutions. In addition to better enforcement of the current law and implementation of provisions like the oversight committees, he acknowledged that the government should revisit the law that abolished slavery—the Bonded Labor Abolition Act of 1976.
Government representatives from four different Indian states also presented ways in which they have already taken action against forced labor in their districts. One state representative shared how they are now offering a monetary reward for citizens who report forced labor to police, and they have increased the amount of funds the government provides to survivors from roughly $320 (Rs. 20,000) to $800 (Rs 50,000).
Shantanu Dutta, Director of National Advocacy for IJM in New Delhi, leads Bandhua 1947, a national advocacy campaign supported by IJM and several other partner organizations working in a dozen states across India to generate awareness and urge lawmakers to strengthen the anti-slavery law passed more than 30 years ago.
Dutta said the Minister's remarks about forced labor were noteworthy because of the fact that Suresh is a national-level official elected by the Indian public who publicly acknowledges that forced labor exists in India. When IJM began work in India, the vast majority of public officials denied that forced labor was an issue in the country, and many had never received any training on implementing the laws against it. The message was clear, according to Dutta: "The Minister directed his officials to make [ending forced labor] a top priority and to make it a thing of the past."