Slavery and weak laws

In South Asia, millions remain victims of a wicked form of slavery known as peshgi, or bonded labour.

Dawood I Ahmed August 01, 2011

On August 1, 1834, slavery was officially abolished in most of the British Empire when the Slavery Abolishment Act of 1833 finally became law. Between 1817 and 1871, Britain signed bilateral treaties with numerous countries that established international criminal courts, which would over the years, end up freeing more than 60,000 slaves. All of this came from a nation that before the 19th century was, the pre-eminent slave trading nation.

Today, international human rights law leave no doubt that prohibition against slavery is inviolable. Yet, in South Asia, millions remain victims of a wicked form of slavery known as peshgi, or bonded labour. Human Rights Watch estimated as far back as 1999, that India was home to some 40 million bonded labourers. In Pakistan, over one million bonded labourers are currently enslaved in the brick kiln industry alone.

On the surface though, both India and Pakistan appear very keen on supporting laws that proscribe slavery; both countries have ratified the ILO’s Forced Labour Convention and the UN Convention. The constitutions of both states prohibits bonded labour, each country has enacted anti-slavery legislation while their Supreme Courts have strongly condemned bonded labour in decisions handed down decades ago. Nevertheless, both countries have proven themselves remarkably ineffective at combatting bonded labour. As at 2009, the Pakistani government had not convicted a single person of using bonded labour, even though a law was passed in 1992 that criminalised holding bonded labour; additionally, between 1989 and 2006 only 8,530 bonded labourers were freed in Pakistan. The Indian governments record is equally dismal: In the five year period between 2001 and 2006, even the heavily affected state of Tamil Nadu reported a mere 1,679 cases of bonded labour.

Whilst poverty and social exclusion are no doubt significant culprits in the battle against slavery, a fundamental reason why anti-slavery laws in both countries have been so impotent is because they rely on the false premise that laws alone can eliminate unjust practices, without parallel alterations in individual moral conscience. In the British story, a realisation of the social disgust of slavery preceded criminalisation. In South Asia, the reverse was true: An act was outlawed before any mass social campaign to change national moral attitudes took root. Without such a corresponding alteration in public morality— and considering that the law has always remained a weak means of enforcing conduct in the region — any effort at eliminating slavery through law without tweaking moral attitudes was naturally bound to fail.

The British experience shows that legal penalties must be supplemented by the communication of images and words that persuade the general public to take a stand against slavery. In the space of a few years, it became socially reprehensible to engage in slavery.

At the same time, the role of economic incentives should not be underestimated in advancing humanitarian causes. The British example again provides a useful insight: To inspire men of the Royal Navy to diligently capture slave ships, a combination of financial rewards, prestige, and philanthropy was employed by the British government. Likewise, in states such as ours where poverty is rife and government capacity or willingness to monitor offenders weak, it must be made profitable for any individual to report on others who use bonded labour. This, however, requires a nationwide realisation that bonded labour is in fact absolutely unacceptable. A sad reality, of even the most progressive syllabus in the elitist Pakistani schools today is that we place excessive emphasis on functional subjects, to the complete exclusion of others. Pakistanis and Indians often begin to learn in detail about the perils of global slavery and other evils once they commence graduate education abroad. To this end, domestic law can be very effective: It should be made compulsory for natural law based subjects such as human rights, to be injected into the secondary school curriculum. A younger generation that is cognisant of global morality will be much more effective at combatting domestic problems.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 2nd, 2011.


saadia | 12 years ago | Reply

Really liked your article its refreshing that in this age of materialism there is someone thinking of this unprivileged class of our society, that is mostly forgotten. We have become so callous that no one thinks of these bonded laborers and their children and how they cannot be provided with the same opportunities as an average Pakistani.

Tanoli | 12 years ago | Reply

@ Menon Truth prevaile.

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