Indian Journalists Explore Subtleties of Modern Slavery

by Timothy Large
Monday, 13 March 2017 15:54 GMT

Sujata Mody, president of the Garment and Fashion Workers Union, and a textiles worker describe dire factory conditions in India's Tamil Nadu state / THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION

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By Timothy Large

An elephant tied to a post by a cord has the brute strength to break free - but years of conditioning as a beast of burden make the tether seem unbreakable.

That’s a metaphor given by Matthew Joji, acting director of research and partnerships at anti-trafficking group the International Justice Mission, discussing debt bondage in India, where an estimated 18 million people live in some form of modern slavery.

His point was that a lot of the coercion behind human trafficking and forced labour is subtler than many - including journalists, judges and police - may realise.

"They come and say: 'Where is the gun?'" he told reporters. "They come and ask: 'Are you a bonded labourer?' She (the victim) doesn’t know she's in bonded labour… Whenever we say the word force, the police immediately think there is physical force - but there is psychological force as well."

Joji was addressing journalists from all over India who had come to the southern city of Chennai for a workshop aimed at challenging many of the clichés, myths and misconceptions that mar reporting of a crime that affects 46 million people worldwide, according to the latest Global Slavery Index by Walk Free Foundation.

Part of the Thomson Reuters Foundation's Reporting Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery programme, the week-long workshop supported by the C&A Foundation sought to help journalists deepen their understanding of root causes of the scourge and ask tough questions about the media’s role in holding to account governments, law enforcement and businesses.

Journalists came from far afield as New Delhi, Kashmir and even Muscat. Some were freelancers. Others represented news organisations including The HinduThe Times of IndiaThe Deccan ChroniclePacific Press AgencyDaily Kashmir ImagesDaily Excelsior and Times of Oman.

The workshop took place in Chennai, capital of Tamil Nadu, because the state is a major hub of forced and trafficked labour into the garment industry that serves international retailers and domestic brands as well as countless brick kilns feeding India’s booming construction sector.

It's also a source of vulnerable migrant labour to Gulf states, where a form of forced labour known as “contract slavery” ensnares tens of thousands on building sites and in domestic servitude.

In many cases, the ties that bind are as insidious as they are invisible: small debts that take years to pay off, implicit threats of violence, broken promises of a better life abroad.

Perpetrators are more likely to be labour agents, friends or even family than thugs and gangsters. More people are imprisoned on farms and in homes and hotels than in brothels.

From the anatomy of a Thomson Reuters Foundation investigation into child deaths in illegal mica mines to legal dangers and the ethics of interviewing traumatised slavery survivors, the course covered topics designed to deepen knowledge and sharpen practical skills.

Led by former Thomson Reuters Foundation Editor-in-Chief Timothy Large and South Asia Correspondent Nita Bhalla, the workshop also encouraged journalists to dig for trafficking and slavery stories in "beats" not normally associated with human rights issues: business and finance, science and technology, fashion, sport.

Another goal was for reporters to expand their contacts from law enforcement, policymaking, trade unions, activism and media “gatekeepers”, to give greater insight to stories that many in the anti-trafficking world see as sensationalist, simplistic and obsessed with sex slavery.

Speakers included:

- Rahul Nath, additional secretary with the Tamil Nadu government

- Adrian Phillips, advocate with anti-trafficking rescue and support group Justice and Care and a member of the committee that drafted India’s new anti-trafficking bill

- Sister Valaramathi, state coordinator of the National Domestic Workers Movement

- Sujata Mody, president of the Garment and Fashion Workers Union

- Anindit Roy Chowdhury, programme manager for gender justice and human rights at C&A Foundation

By the end of the week, the journalists had to come up with concrete ideas for under-reported trafficking and slavery stories that they "pitched" to Reuters journalists for constructive criticism.

Six of the journalists will be eligible for ongoing mentoring and editorial support as they carry out investigations, data mining and on-the-ground reporting.

Expect to see the fruits of their work soon, including big exclusives that are likely to make front pages.