Editorial: Sticky wicket of bonded labour

Reports state that close to 300 Indians are languishing in these digital penitentiaries in Myanmar, with at least 50 of them hailing from Tamil Nadu.
Representative illustration
Representative illustration

A shocking development involving people from Tamil Nadu being trapped in south east nations like Myanmar and Thailand as bonded labourers and being deployed to carry out cyber-crime related activities has made the administration in both the State and the Centre sit up and pay attention. Reports state that close to 300 Indians are languishing in these digital penitentiaries in Myanmar, with at least 50 of them hailing from Tamil Nadu. Another 400 Indians are in the custody of a gang in Cambodia. These individuals were lured with the promise of million-dollar pay cheques, working in sunshine sectors like telecom and software in dream destinations like Thailand. Having been conned by manpower agencies that exact a heavy price for such offers of overseas employment, the prospective employees are instructed to carry out activities like spamming, phishing and online frauds.

Eyewitness accounts have reported workers being subjected to torture and abuse in the event of refusing to comply with the instructions. The frequency at which such episodes are being reported is numbing. As per the Global Estimates of Modern Slavery report released last month, over 50 mn people across the globe, or one in every 150 people alive, are held hostage by modern slavery. As per the International Labour Organization, Walk Free and the International Organization for Migration, 28 mn people are engaged in forced labour, while 22 mn people are trapped in forced marriages.

The number of individuals involved in modern slavery has risen sharply over the last five years. In 2021, 10 million more people were enslaved in such conditions, compared to global estimates from 2016. As expected, women and children make up for the bulk of such labourers and are disproportionately vulnerable. The study has highlighted a near universal footprint of bonded labour, cutting across ethnic, cultural and religious lines. The analysis also sheds light on the fact that 52 per cent of all forced labour can be found in upper-middle income or high-income countries. It’s an indicator how the developed world and the international community as a whole, have happily swept their culpability under the carpet when it comes to questions of gross human rights violations.

In July, it was reported that member nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council have witnessed the maximum number of deaths of Indian workers during 2019 to 2021. The highest number of fatalities during this period were witnessed in the UAE and Saudi Arabia. As many as 3,753 Indian workers perished in Saudi in 2020, while a year later 2,328 workers died here. In UAE similarly, 2,454 Indian labourers died in 2020, and a year later, the number was 2,714. One could argue that the larger numbers could be reflective of the dispersion of migrant workers of Indian origin in these nations.

But one needs to look closer as to why people from India are willing to risk life and limb in a foreign land, just to make sure ends meet. There’s obviously the shortage of well-paying jobs which is offset by a competitive milieu that keeps growing fiercer with every passing day. Economic migration will not end in a day. But what can be done by host nations is to improve and enforce laws and labour inspections. Even recruitment must be carried out on the basis of fairness and ethical concerns, and the government will need to take an active interest in weeding out nefarious operators.

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