Anti-Trafficking Bill 2018 Fails to Address Changing Forms of Labour Exploitation

The recently passed Trafficking of Persons (Prevention, Protection and Rehabilitation) Bill, 2018 is woefully unaware of the present context of globalisation and the changing forms of labour dispossession and exploitation. 

This article is a part of the Special Feature Rethinking Trafficking Bill 2018. To read other articles in this feature, click here. 

Looking at the Trafficking of Persons (Prevention, Protection and Rehabilitation) Bill, 2018  from the background of union work with women in the informal sector, I fail to understand what the Government of India (GoI) intends through this Bill. So far as the United Nation Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons Expecially Women and Children of 2000 is concerned, to which the GoI is a signatory, one would have expected a far more comprehensive anti-trafficking law. Such a bill should conceptualise trafficking and adopt a labour rights apporach to trafficking in light of the realities of work in the Indian context on which the prevention and suppression efforts ought to be based. After all, millions of Indians migrate for work, seeking work outside their existing locations. They fall into traps of labour supply agents who cheat or allure them and in many ways retain them as bonded labour. Such workers need to be protected by law, through mechanisms instituted for the same, and not just released and rehabilitated as is suggested in the proposed bill. This dimension of labour in migration is not addressed in the Bill. 

Considering also that the GoI is in the process of undertaking extensive labour law reforms, where it seeks to consolidate labour laws, one would expect that a trafficking Bill in 2018 would have a broader perspective towards preventing, suppressing and punishing trafficking of persons by drawing into its ambit aspects of existing laws such as the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976 (Bonded Labour Act), the Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act, 1970 (Contract Labour Act), the Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979, the Children (Pledging of Labour) Act, 1933 and the Child and Adolescent Labour (Regulation and Prohibition) Act, 1986, which deal with forced labour and child labour, primarily through regulation and welfare-oriented measures. Unfortunately, this bill seems to provide for a structure without any flesh in place. 

Realities of Interstate Migrant Work

In the present context of globalisation, the forms of labour dispossession and exploitation are changing and are also increasing. That women and girls are entering the labour force in large numbers just to keep the home fires burning is a stark reality. Women and girls move seasonally, even alone, for longer periods depending on the need. They move in groups through various nameless contractors. Almost none of them report that they have been paid what they have been promised for a seasonal engagement, be it in agriculture or brick-making, and there is always the advance that has to be repaid, calculated most of the time according to the whims of the contractors. The living conditions of the workers when migrating are sub-human. For those who move for longer periods with agents, such as those who are placed as domestic workers, the situation is even more grave. The conditions of such domestic workers is dire as they are forced to stay with the employer for a period of 11 months and are permitted to go home for leave only after that, failing which they are not given their dues. Despite the long working hours and tiring tasks, their payments are often delayed and hiring scouts often pocket a part of their wages (Aajeevika Bureau 2016). Being alone and in places away from home, these women have no way to escape as the majority of them do not even know the name of the location where they work or the name of the employer. 

In my field experience, I have found that families in the city prefer to hire domestic help from Odisha, Bihar, Jharkhand and even the north-east states as they are docile and captive labour. Employers often do not even mind if workers are below the age of 16 years, in fact, they prefer younger girls. That even a state like Kerala, with its otherwise progressive laws, has workers of this nature is a reality. Are such women living in conditions of bondage? Are these women covered by the bill?  Does calling them “trafficked” and sending them to shelter homes help them in any way? Do the provisions on rehabilitation make sense for these women? How are the back wages calculated if the workers only receive a percentage of what they are promised and there are no minimum standards? Is compensation under Section 357A of Criminal Procedure Code, 1973 adequate? How do they get back to work?

The bill neither seeks to highlight the need for awareness-raising to facilitate safer channels of migration nor does it consider the trafficked persons as workers who have rights. Here is where provisions of the Bonded Labour Act and Contract Labour Act would come into play and would need to be integrated into the bill. That the mechanisms set up at various levels to intercede make no reference to the personnel of the Department of Labour, indicates that no attention has been paid to these forms of labour trafficking.   

Skills Development: No Panacea 

While what is mentioned above is seen mainly in the informal channels of migration, there are official channels that are equally bad. This happens today with the focus on skill development to increase jobs in the industrial, modern sector (Barry 2016). The GoI has contracted the job of skill development to various private organisations. In my field interactions with women in such jobs, I found that they get paid only after placing workers after training. Female workers in these schemes who work mainly in the garment and food processing industry are placed again under false promises as to wages and conditions under which they will work (SEWA-ILO-WIF Report 2018). 

These young girls find themselves trapped in companies in cities like Bengaluru, Tirupur, Kochi and Thiruvanathapuram that keep them permanently on work sites where they have no freedom to move out and where they are often poorly skilled so that their work is rejected and they do not get paid (Barry 2016). Having moved to the city with dreams of employment and opportunities for upward mobility, they also end up feeling trapped and frustrated. Have such women been trafficked? Are they engaged in conditions of forced labour? The justification from the placement agency is that earning a wage of Rs 6,000 a month is any day more than they would get in their remote tribal village. 

In our interviews with girls from Bengaluru and Odisha, they reported that they worked 12–14 hours in a day and would have to pay for their own food and medical bills from their meagre wages. What do these girls actually end up earning? If such young women were better informed about their labour rights and had moved with the knowledge of labour inspectors in their home states by registering in the panchayat, they would have some redress mechanism when abused.

The Need for Workers’ Mobilisation  

The organising of women is sure to help against trafficking. For example, an Oriya live-in domestic worker in Mumbai who was a member of the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) union in Sundargarh, Odisha demanded her rights. When her employer dismissed her suddenly, she called three of her other friends who all turned up with their union Identity cards and told the employer that she would leave but had to be paid her two months’ pending wage plus one month’s notice or that they would report the case as they belonged to the union. Seeing the ID cards, the employer paid the Rs 36,000 that was owed and the worker then left.

The National Platform of Domestic Workers – a network of various trade unions, has been lobbying for a comprehensive bill for domestic workers as the GoI is also a signatory to the International Labour Organisation Domestic Workers Convention No 189. Such a bill seeks the registration of workers, employers and placement agencies, all regulated by a tripartite Labour Board which will regulate employment and which also provides a redress mechanism.

The Predicament of Cross-border Migrants

The cross-border migration of women and their fate in Saudi Arabia, Dubai, Qatar and other West Asian countries Middle Eastern abysmal. Based on our case studies, we found that large numbers of women workers are monetarily cheated, several of them are also molested and are put in prison. They return to India poorer than when they left as huge debts incurred for migration have to be repaid. Many of them are in poor health conditions when they return, rendering them unfit to work again. Several studies reveal how these women are cheated by agents and then by the Emigration Department itself (ILO 2015; Kodoth 2016: 83–106). SEWA in Kerala has lobbied for the facilitation of placement through government placement agencies, which until 2016 refused to recruit domestic workers for placement in the West Asia. 

Conclusion 

In light of these realities of Indian workers’ lives, which the bill barely touches on, the bill in its present form must be withdrawn and more thought must be given to it. It should certainly develop a more realistic labour perspective focusing on the prevention of forced labour and trafficking by reducing its focus on criminalisation. It should emphasise the need for the involvement of local government institutions that can provide more information to people who wish to migrate and keep track of their movements. The bill should sincerely put institutional mechanisms in place that safeguard workers’ mobility and security.  

This article is a part of the Special Feature Rethinking Trafficking Bill 2018. To read other articles in this feature, click here. 

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