It is everywhere illegal yet slavery persists in many corners of the global economy. How do its beneficiaries justify it?
I liked Aanan as soon as I met him. My field notes read: ‘What a nice guy, you can just see from his face.’ Open-faced and conversational, he was enthusiastic about the explosive growth in his quarry operations and excited to show me around. Together, we toured the open mines where his workers carve into the earth, producing boulders that are broken down into gravel by smaller labourers, often women and children. Together with his workers, Aanan laughed at my efforts to repeat the process for myself, the sledge held high over my head before arcing down, momentarily disappearing into shards and dust.
He showed me the crushing equipment that transformed gravel into silica powder, proudly explaining that the Indian multinational company, Tata, which makes generous donations to Harvard’s renowned business school, was the exclusive buyer of his materials. I had met Aanan through a friend of his, a reference that considerably eased his concerns about speaking with an outsider regarding his operations. The fact that I was most interested in challenging bonded labour – a contemporary form of slavery – didn’t matter.
Around half of the world’s slaves are held in debt bondage in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Debt bondage is a very old form of slavery in which radically marginalised members of society, often from India’s ‘untouchable’ caste, must trade all their labour for single small infusions of cash. Broader social and economic systems ensure that they do not understand the terms of such loans, and that the time required to repay them is interminable. Lack of other work, lack of credit, and the need to pay for schooling and marriages effectively guarantee that there is no single contractual debt between the landlord and labourer but rather a string of interconnected informal loans.
Workers are often promised that their debt will be repaid within a certain period of time, only to be told that they have somehow incurred new debts. Running debts are occasionally sold to other slaveholders, and in this way a worker can change hands several times. Local officials are more likely to turn a blind eye than to enforce a remote law.
The days of owning people are over, yet slavery still persists in dark pockets of the global economy. All forms of slavery are now illegal in every country on Earth, yet the practice still festers in unreformed nests of feudalism, where threats and violence can suppress or eliminate pay for work. Where slavery is verboten, psychological control through deception and fear is the new coin of the realm. In the case of debt bondage, it is the caste system – with Brahmin at the head and ‘untouchable’ beneath – that does the delicate work of stitching debts together into a seamless, infinite coercive system that leaves labourers feeling trapped.
Despite the abuse, the caste-based worldview frames these exploitative labour relations in familial terms. ‘You have to understand the mentality of labourers, and you should know how to make them work,’ says Aanan, who views himself as the caring parent and his workers as children. ‘To manage a group of labourers is like managing a group of primary-school children. They have to be provided with food or clothes, and they are taught how to behave … sometimes they start drinking alcohol; sometimes they indulge in feasts. So we have to pay them with caution. We divide them into small groups because larger numbers of workers tend to form a union and sometimes engage in mass holidays or strikes.’
Aanan says the happiness of his worker is paramount, even though his business model depends on entrapping the vulnerable and working them to the bone as they crush rock from dusk to dawn. He couldn’t come out and say this to me or to his workers – or perhaps even to himself.
Withholding pay and limiting opportunities to mobilise are important strategies for controlling workers. But all of this is done for the workers’ own good, Aanan insists. Though landlords complain about alcohol, such indulgences are also tactics for increasing debt. Rowdy festivals allow workers to blow off steam, effectively directing frustration away from their abusers. These events also allow workers to spend what little money they have, increasing the likelihood that they will remain dependent on the landlord’s line of credit.
To the erstwhile slaveholder, leisure activities – talking, idling, drinking – are vices, tangible manifestations of social decline
When asked if he needs the workers or the workers need him, Aanan explains that: ‘The worker is my cash machine, my fate.’ In this one statement, he has captured a central contradiction inherent in most human-rights violations worldwide: exploitation takes place at the intersection of culture and capital, in the overlap between relationship and extraction, at the moment where care and exploitation intersect…