On a clear night, you can see Orion

Perhaps the question I dread most upon returning to the U.S. is this one: so, what is it like there? It’s like this only: “It varies.” Those are the first words out of my mouth when I answer questions about the U.S., whether about culture or weather or law or food, and they are true here, only more so. How can it not? Over 1.2 billion people–quadruple the U.S. population–in an area just over a third as large, speaking over 400 languages, twenty-two of which are scheduled (recognized) regional languages.

My answer to the question of what it is like is also schizophrenic in the extreme, and incomplete. I’ve lived on the Deccan Plateau in the silicon city, and on the Gangetic plains in the capital city–by some accounts, the place that resulted after seven or more cities were constructed, destroyed, and conglomerated over the last 2500 years. I’ve ventured north to Ladakh, in the high desert mountains near the Tibetan border, but I’ve only dipped my toes into the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal. I’ve never ventured through much of the center, be it Madhya Pradesh or Andhra Pradesh or the tribal belt, and never ventured to Kolkata and the northeast–the furthest east I’ve been is possibly about three kilometers east of that terminus of the Delhi metro in Uttar Pradesh. Read More →

A multi-state rescue

Watch this video in which people describe their experience working in a Bangalore incense factory, working for multiple years without any compensation:

This was a recent case from our Bangalore office. This was part of a multi-state, 155-person rescue described in more detail in this story from The Hindu:

The recent raid on an agarbatti factory on the outskirts of Bengaluru, in which 107 labourers were rescued, points to a trafficking network that runs much deeper than what this specific case reveals.

Those rescued by the district administration and the police from Balaji Agarbatti Factory at Kaggalipura on Thursday hail from West Bengal (43), Assam (40), Jharkhand (22), and Nepal (2). They were brought here in batches over three years. However, the common thread running through all their narratives is the modus operandi of “agents” who brought them to Bengaluru. […]

The next stop was Tirupattur, Tamil Nadu, where some of them worked briefly in another agarbatti factory before moving to Bengaluru. While the first point of contact at the village level is different depending on the State from which they hail, the Delhi agent is unanimously mentioned by all workers.

“There is certainly a racket here and the police are on the lookout for links to the agency in Delhi,” said Dayanand, tahsildar of Bengaluru South taluk. Besides provisions of Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976, the factory owner and touts have also been booked for human trafficking (Section 370).

Sources in Kaggalipura police said it was a “clear case of trafficking with inter-State ramifications” with several agents involved. Subsequently, a raid was also conducted at an agarbatti factory in Tirupattur, where 48 workers were rescued.

This complicated rescue required the work of multiple offices in multiple states and the strong response of government officials. I am so proud this IJM was involved in this. This is what we mean when we say that part of our objective is to “prove that justice for the poor is possible.”

The thing that struck me more than anything else about this was how modern the facility was. The New Indian Express had a picture from the inside:

This is not a brick kiln operating with some pre-industrial manufacturing techniques. This is a factory operating at scale with modern technology and facilities.

A remarkable rescue in Bihar

An NGO that IJM partners with in the northern state of Bihar recently did a rescue that shows that things are changing on the ground, but also shows how alarming the facts are still on the ground. The rescue was done with the National Human Rights Commission, a government body that ensures that human rights are protected, and reported here. There were 118 people from 38 families in a traditional bonded labour case in which the families had been victims for generations:

The petitioner alleged that more than thirty eight families are being exploited under an illegal bonded labour system in the revenue jurisdiction of Benipatti Sub-Division of Madhubani District. These labourers were forced to work by their respective employers at agricultural lands under “Kamiya” bonded labour custom.

The labourers are working since generations. The labourers are not paid their statutory minimum wages, instead they receive in kind two kilograms each (husband and wife) of raw rice per day against their hard labour rendered. Most of the labourers belong to the Scheduled Caste category (Mushahar) and work more than 10 hours a day. They are trapped in a customary bonded labour system in which the labourers are not free to move out or to be employed elsewhere, alleged the Petitioner.
Just to repeat. People were forced to work for generations and paid in kind in raw rice. Two kilograms per day. With subsidies for the poor, one kilogram of rice can cost just Rs. 5, or or less than $0.10. This long-term, generational oppression happened, in part, due to the caste system. The owners of the farmland were high caste, while the workers were dalits or untouchables.
The story continues, noting that

Accordingly ‘Release Certificates’ have issued to them and at least 113 cases have been filled against 18 errant employers under section 20(2) Minimum Wages Act, 1948 in respect of 48 labourers. They are also booked under the provisions of the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, the Scheduled Castes & Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, the Child Labour Act, the Juvenile Justice Act and the Indian Penal Code.

The full report by the NHRC on the case  is here. In that it is also noted that those 18 were charged under the human trafficking offence, which means that they are eligible for life in prison. The report goes into detail about the personal stories of the victims and the resistance that local leaders had to the government responding.

With this report, you actually have one of the best documented modern cases of this form of generational slavery that still occurs throughout the country.

A historic sex trafficking conviction

While our work with IJM has focused on labour trafficking, we do have offices that work on sex trafficking. One of our offices just supported local prosecutors in getting a historic conviction, the longest in the history of the state of West Bengal. According to the Times of India:

On Thursday a Haldia court sentenced man a 13 year rigorous imprisonment for multiple sex trafficking related crimes, the longest sentence in sex trafficking in West Bengal. Naru Gopal Shaw was convicted on April 10 under five sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and Immoral Traffic Prevention Act (ITPA) by the Additional District and Sessions Court, Haldia, East Mednipore.

Additionally, this was not the brothel owner, but someone who supported the brothel owner’s crime:

“This case is very significant because the convict was not the principal accused, but was charged for abetment,” said Amal Ojha, the special public prosecutor to the case. “This proves that even those who are not directly involved, but are helping as accomplices, can also be punished,” added Saptarshi Biswas, advocate for International Justice Mission (IJM), who provided legal counsel to the victims.

The victims in this case articulated why a conviction is so important:

Three of the rescued victims returned to court to identify Shaw and testify about the abuse he inflicted upon them. One victim, six months into pregnancy made four-hour journey from her home to stand before the court. Another victim testified that Shaw forced them to consume alcohol, raped, and tortured them. She said he threatened that if they didn’t obey the brothel owner they would face dire consequences.

“This will bring terror to people who are running brothels or abusing girls,” one of the victims said. “When people hear that these men who were very powerful are behind bars they will think twice about committing such crime,” the woman added.


US Senate leads on modern day slavery with an innovative approach

Last week the Chairman and Ranking members — the lead Republican and Democrat — of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee introduced legislation to fight modern day slavery of the sort that we are working to address. Senators Corker (R-TN) and Menendez (D-NJ) introduced the End Modern Slavery Initiative Act and passed it out of their committee unanimously so that the whole Senate can act on it.

Before I go into the details of the legislation, please go tell your Senators to support the legislation.

There are several things about this that I find someone remarkable:

  1. The Senate took notice. With today’s international and domestic crises, the decision to focus on this issue is pleasantly surprising.
  2. It is bipartisan. With nothing passing through Congress, this is something that can. And it is something that President Barack Obama is likely to support.
  3. Additionally, it is a program with a somewhat innovative structure for foreign aid, following in the footsteps of the two major foreign aid programs of the Bush administration that I worked on while working on Capitol Hill: the Millenium Challenge Corporation and the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). These used new structures to transform governance and the African AIDS epidemic with relatively little incremental economic investment.

I should point out that International Justice Mission had a role in articulating the importance and achievability of the objectives. IJM CEO Gary Haugen testified to the Committee several weeks before the legislation was introduced. Watch his testimony here, as it is quite a clear articulation of IJM’s point of view.

While, obviously, I am interested in the domain that is getting funded, I am just as intrigued by the structure of the program. Several things jump out at me.

First, the US government is providing “only” $250 million over 7 years, with the goal of raising another $1.25 billion from other countries and the corporate sector, a public-private partnership. This is a tiny amount of money, even compared to the tiny US foreign aid budget, approximately $48 billion in 2015, less than 1% of the federal budget, but the goal is to leverage that money through strong management practices described below that make it easier for others to invest in the program. At just over $35m/year, this is less than 0.1% of the total foreign aid budget. It is sad that with that, Holly Burkhalter, Vice President of Government Relations for IJM, noted that this will make the US government “the largest donor in the anti-slavery field.”

However, and this is the second point, this program has very strong accountability systems, described in the bill and this fact sheet, that seek to not only succeed but to change the culture of NGOs that operate in this space. Money is allocated for 7 years, in part, because the grants are required to prove that they can “[a]chieve a measurable 50 percent reduction of modern slavery in targeted populations,” in that time frame, otherwise, “[p]rojects that fail to meet goals will be suspended or terminated.” Holly from IJM describes this aspect of the Act as “tie[ing] grants to rigorous assessment of slavery prevalence and measurable outcomes.” That requires both planning and measurement, something that many NGOs are just not very good at, but for which IJM has been called “exemplary.”

Hopefully with this new program we can “fatally wound” modern slavery and human trafficking.

PS: I should note that the opinions expressed here are entirely my own in my capacity as a once (and maybe again) foreign aid policy professional and in no way reflect the position of IJM.

Trafficking in the U.S.: After Hurricane Katrina

Signal shipyard in Orange, Texas

Signal shipyard in Orange, Texas

Last week, a federal jury in the Eastern District of Louisiana awarded $14 million to five Indian laborers who had been deceptively recruited to work in Pascagoula, Mississippi and Orange, Texas:

The workers paid fees of more than $10,000 to Signal recruiters who coordinated the hiring of some 500 welders and pipefitters in 2005, as the company faced a shortage of skilled labor and a glut of work in the months after Hurricane Katrina. Workers arrived in the United States to find that recruiters’ promise of green cards — and permanent U.S. residency — were false, and that they would have to live in the cramped quarters of ‘man camps’ adjacent to the shipyard [paying $1050 per month for a double-wide trailer with two toilets shared by 24 men]. Under laws governing guest workers, the men could not take other jobs in the U.S. and faced massive debt if they returned home.

The most unique part of their story is that these laborers were found, identified as victims of labour trafficking, and a case successfully brought against the traffickers for exploitation, fraud, discrimination, and racketeering (a civil suit through the Southern Poverty Law Center, David v Signal Int’l LLC, 2:08-cv-01220). These five men were among approximately 590 laborers brought by Signal under H-2B visas to work in its shipyards after Katrina.

The rest of the story is common. In the U.S., labour trafficking often has a slight perversion from the debt bondage in South Asia: instead of workers being paid advances by their employers, workers frequently pay recruitment fees to secure their jobs. These fees often amount to a year’s salary in the home country, and are raised through moneylenders and mortgage of house, farm, and any other family land. The worker whose job does not pan out faces the loss of nearly everything, for self and for family also.

The recruitment fees the men paid were illegal: charging job placement fees to H-2 visa holders is forbidden. A study released last year by the Urban Institute found that “On average, victims [of labour trafficking] paid $6,150 in recruitment fees to recruitment agencies for jobs in the United States,” an amount “higher than the annual per capita income of the top six countries of origin for victims” in the study, namely Mexico, Philippines, India, Thailand, Guatemala, and Indonesia. Likewise, a 2013 study by Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, focusing on migrants recruited from Mexico to the U.S., found that 59% of migrants paid illegal recruitment fees.

Another story out of Katrina–one of the first to emerge in 2007–involved Thai workers who had been recruited on H2-A visas for farm work in North Carolina, paying $11000 or more for these opportunities. Pay was less, hours less, and living conditions far worse than promised, and their passports illegally confiscated on arrival. At this point, a trafficking offense could have been made out. It got worse. A few months after their arrival, the labor recruiter sent the workers for demolition work in New Orleans. From the amended complaint: worse than unsanitary living conditions in a condemned hotel, an supervisor armed with a gun and orders to shoot any outsiders who came to the site, and simply no paychecks at all, and hunger. These allegations are uncomfortably similar to what we see here, in South Asia.

Read More →

“. . . that the peasants shall not work for nothing, since the labourer is worthy of his hire.”

The title of this post is a quote from the eighth of the Twelve Articles of the Schwabian Peasants, from 1525. These articles are a plea to be released from serfdom and oppressive requirements for forced labour, to be judged according to written laws, to have religious freedom and be able to call their own pastors, and to be able to gather resources from common public lands and waterways. I re-read these articles recently, in the context of a recent rescue, as the fifth article memorably begins “We also have a grievance about wood-cutting,” and that line has stuck with me through the years. This time, on re-reading, the third article’s cry for a fundamental right to freedom stood out the loudest:

It has been the custom hitherto for men to hold us as their own property, which is pitiable enough, considering that Christ has delivered and redeemed us all, without exception, by the shedding of His precious blood, the lowly as well as the great. Accordingly, it is consistent with Scripture that we should be free and wish to be so.

The issues from 1525–that the labourer is worth of his hire; that people are free and ought not be held as property–have yet to be fully vindicated.

I returned to these articles, as I noted, after a rescue earlier this month. That rescue involved wood-cutters, some whom had spent the last two decades in bondage and whose children had been born into bondage. Here’s the story, as reported by the Hindu:

Sixteen bonded labourers, including four children, who were forced to cut wood 18 hours a day were released from bondage here in Nellore district recently. . . .

The owners, who forced them into bonded labour belonged to an upper caste in the region. Most of the victims belonged to the Yanadi tribe (ST) and they were toiling hard from 6 a.m. to midnight. . . .

It is found that the labourers were forced to make bundles of hundreds of kilos of wood each day and received only Rs. 500 for Rs. 1,000 [$8 to $16] a family every two weeks, which is far below the minimum wage.

Enquiries by the NGOs revealed that some of the labourers had received a small advance of Rs. 13,000 [$210] in 1994 from a man who later sold them to the most recent owners.

As the article also explains, the labourers were not allowed to take on other work or to leave the job premises without permission and without leaving family members behind as security, and the children were not allowed to attend school but instead forced to join in the work. These are sadly common elements of bonded labour.

Trafficking: Jharkhand to Delhi


Poverty Distribution by States

Jharkhand is one of India’s newer states, carved in 2000 from the southern section of Bihar, lying in a region rich in mineral deposits and, until recently, quite thickly forested. It is also, by some calculations, India’s second-poorest state. Two demographic points are key: the tribal population is significant, at 26%, and the state is among the most affected by Naxalite insurgencies. For these reasons and more, Jharkhand is a substantial source state for trafficking within India.

That domestic trafficking is the subject of a three-piece series in Mumbai-based newspaper dna, published this Republic Day weekend.

  1. trafficked: “The man who trafficked 5,000 tribal kids; dna explores a dark underbelly of modern day slavery”
  2. without deterrence: “Poor policing lets slave traders off the hook”
  3. without rehabilitation: “Battered and bruised, some return, some are never to be seen again..”

Read More →

Trafficking of Persons and the Law

A while back, when defining bonded labour, I promised a similar legal explanation of the crime of trafficking. This month seems as fitting a time as any: January is anti-human trafficking awareness month in the U.S., and earlier this month, trafficking was the subject of Pope Francis’s first mass of the new year. It’s on topic, too, because many bonded labourers are persons who have been trafficked for exploitation as bonded labourers. So, what is trafficking?

(A caveat: if this sounds too dry, skip to the bottom for illustrations and stories.)


The Palermo Protocol on trafficking, adopted by the United Nations in 2000, defines trafficking in person as a crime consisting of three elements: an act that sometimes but not always physically displaces a person, and a means that prevents the trafficked person from giving full and meaningful consent, all done for the purpose of exploitation.


  • the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons;


  • by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person;

purpose of exploitation: 

  • Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs. [note: Bonded labour, or debt bondage, is a subtype of forced labour.]

Following the Palermo Protocol, many countries revised or implemented their criminal laws to specifically target trafficking itself, adopting legislation that closely tracked the international definition. Canada (CC s. 279.01), India (IPC s. 370, as amended in 2013), and the U.S. (22 U.S.C. § 7102(9)) all undertook such amendments.

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“Nothing Less than the Birth of Indian Painting”

In more belated news, two weeks ago I attended an event at the National Gallery of Modern Art was “Ajanta Cave Murals: Nothing Less than the Birth of Indian Painting.” I’d come to hear the presenter, William Dalrymple, author of nine books, including White Mughals and City of Djinns, to name the two on the shelf beside me. He was speaking on mural paintings at the Ajanta cave complex, about 100 km northeast of Aurangabad, at which the oldest known paintings of Indian faces—indeed, also the oldest known Buddhist paintings—were recently uncovered.

Detail from Mural, Cave 10

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