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The challenge to Britain's anti-slavery ambitions: India

Monday, 7 November 2016 13:41 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Any trade deal Britain signs with India would open it up as a major market for slavery-tainted goods

India has the largest numbers of people in slavery in the world, and many of those enslaved work in the supply chains of India’s export-oriented sector. In other words, any trade deal that Britain would sign with India, under the current conditions that prevail there, would open the UK up as a major market for slavery-tainted goods.

The fundamental reasons for the prevalence of slavery in India lie first of all in the persistence of the caste system in India. Those who are enslaved are from the most discriminated against groups in society, particularly Dalits, previously known as the “Untouchables”, and Adivasis, or tribal peoples, who number over 200 million according to the 2011 Census. Because of the discrimination that they endure their routine enslavement by more powerful individuals passes with little comment, and with less governmental action. In fact, this situation is too often regarded as the norm.

And the social prejudices against Dalits and Adivasi are exacerbated because of the elusiveness of legal remedy from the abuses they suffer. India has much decent anti-slavery law, but it is simply not implemented because of the lack of capacity of the judiciary, the scarcity and corruption of the police, the lack of labour inspections, and the lack of a proper system of minimum wages for occupations where a high number of workers are Dalits and Adivasis. This is why Anti-Slavery keeps witnessing horrific stories of abuse in industries such as cotton mills or brick kilns.

Prime Minister Modi has declared that development is one of his governmental priorities. But it will be difficult for him to achieve development for all, and with that a reduction of the extraordinary levels of slavery in India, without robust implementation of the law of the land.

Mrs May may feel that she cannot be held responsible for the rule of law in other lands. But if she wishes the UK to be a world leader on the issue of slavery then the engagement that her country establishes with India will be decisive in the success or failure of this aspiration.

And, amidst the risks that a UK-India trade deal poses to the UK’s position as an anti-slavery power, there are some considerable opportunities. Realistic estimates of how long it will take to negotiate new trade relationships suggest that it will take several years. In parallel to those processes it would be fruitful to try to rectify some of the fundamental issues of slavery and caste discrimination that might otherwise poison trading relationships.

To begin with the UK can put its own house in order by outlawing caste-based discrimination – as agreed by both Houses and passed into UK law in the last parliament, but subsequently allowed to whither on the vine by senior Conservative ministers lest they upset particularly wealthy Hindu supporters in the UK.

With a public commitment to this measure Mrs May should then seek a number of assurances from Prime Minister Modi on this trip.

First she should encourage Prime Minister Modi to fill all the extant vacancies in the Indian judiciary. In Dec 2013 the Indian Supreme Court estimated that, of a sanctioned strength of 19,518 positions in the subordinate courts, there were 4,403 vacancies. This has contributed to a 2015 estimate that there was a backlog of almost 30 million cases in the Indian courts.

Such a shortfall in capacity makes a mockery of the concept of rule of law, and undermines the authority of parliament itself as the laws that are passed come to be seen as mere suggestions to the powerful, rather than a standard to which all citizens are held accountable.

Second Theresa May should ask Prime Minister Modi to implement fully the Supreme Court directives on police reforms, to improve transparency and accountability of the police and to combat corruption.

Finally Theresa May should ask Prime Minister Modi to establish a further national commission to consider how anti-slavery law and practice may be advanced through ensuring police, judiciary and district labour officials have sufficient capacity to uphold the law without fear or favour.

In both these instance the UK can offer world-leading ‘technical’ advice and support from the internationally respected British institutions of the police and judiciary.

The moral challenges implicit in growing trade with India are enormous. But if Prime Ministers May and Modi confront these issues directly future trading negotiations could provide a catalyst for the realisation of the modest dreams of freedom and decent work of millions currently enslaved.

Aidan McQuade is the Director of Anti-Slavery International, the oldest international human rights organisation in the world. During his tenure as Director Anti-Slavery's achievements have included holding the state of Niger to account in an international court for failing to protect its citizens from slavery, obtaining a new statute in British law proscribing forced labour, and mounting a series of investigations identifying where forced labour is used in the production of goods for western markets.

Meena Varma has been Director of Dalit Solidarity Network UK (DSN-UK) since 2007. She was previously Deputy Chief Executive of the Directory of Social Change. She is the Chair of the Board of the International Dalit Solidarity Network and Vice Chair of the Council of Minority Rights Group International. She is also a Board member and Treasurer of the Ethical Trading Initiative.