• September 29, 2020 12:07 am

Reporting From Delhi

When rescue is a tweet away

BySashikala VP

Aug 7, 2020

During the lockdown, social media emerged as an effective tool to move authorities to help bonded labour, especially when migrants themselves made videos about their predicament  

An owner of a brick kiln in UP’s Azamgarh intercepted his labourers as they walked to another site. The five labourers, including a woman, had been demanding to be sent back home to Varanasi. With no wages paid for the past six months, they wanted to earn some money to pay for travel but their employer found them.

They were brought back, the men physically and verbally abused; their hands bound together. Hours later, when they requested to use the toilet, it was allowed under the watchful eyes of two men, acting as guards. “They beat us again, very badly. They didn’t let us leave”, says one man in the video shared on Twitter in July which eventually helped secure his release. 

Like others there, he had been living under debt bondage, working endlessly to pay off an advance of Rs 22,000. The four children with the adults, of ages 5-7, had resorted to begging.

Twitter handles since the lockdown have helped rescue hundreds of people from forced labour. This brings hope that social media can become a tool to tackle the high incidence of human trafficking in India.

When lockdown began on 25 March, it gave people an eye-opening glimpse of the pathetic plight of migrant labour. A people dependent on daily payouts, having moved hundreds of kilometres for low-paying work–and a roof over their heads which can, at any time, become non-existent if the employer wishes.

A representative of End Bonded Labour (EBL) – a coalition of NGOs from across the country who work on the issues of human trafficking – reveals that while they routinely got requests for facilitating the return of migrants, or providing food, what was unprecedented was requests for rescue from bonded labour situations. “We started getting tagged by journalists on requests of rescue.”

Among them was the group from Azamgarh. “We were alerted to this situation by Ravi who is working on the ground”. Ravi had filed a complaint with the District Magistrate on 26 June, but over a week later, no action had been taken. “I even went to meet the SDM and he just rubbished the claims, saying these labourers falsely claim to be abused. And that there is no such thing as bonded labour,” Ravi tells us over the phone.   

He had seen on Twitter a handle which had persistently been writing on human trafficking. This was EBL, he tagged them to a post related to the case and got a response. EBL then decided to ask Public Bolti to work on audio visuals of the persons affected.

Public Bolti is a citizen journalism and advocacy platform based out of Mumbai, with 12 members from different work backgrounds working collectively on a voluntary basis.

“EBL messaged us on Twitter. We had by then already made 4-5 reports on bonded labourers. Our main way of action is to make the persons affected speak, they can articulate very well. Keeping their safety and consent in mind, we ask them to make videos.”

The Azamgarh group’s videos were shared on Twitter on 6 July, which got the right traction. Sanjeev Gupta, Secretary at the Home Ministry’s Inter- State Council Secretariat responded and got the Divisional Commissioner and the DM to look into the matter.

By evening of 7 July, the five labourers received their release certificates, a document which would help them access funds and welfare schemes. 

The practice of bonded labour shouldn’t surprise the administration. Minister of State for Labour and Employment, Santosh Kumar Gangwar had only over a year ago, on 24th June, responded to questions in the Lok Sabha related to rescue and rehabilitation of bonded labour. The number rescued was then 3,13,687 as on 31 March.  

Like in the case above, debt bondage has continued to be used by people to hold on to labourers to pay off a debt. Tricked into working for no pay, bills like the Code on Wages, 2019, will be the first step, and the first law under labour reforms. 

Likely to be implemented by September, the Bill was introduced in the Lok Sabha by the Minister of Labour on July 23, 2019. It seeks to regulate wage and bonus payments in all employment where any industry, trade, business, or manufacture is carried out.  

The Bill which was passed by the Lok Sabha on July 30, and the Rajya Sabha on August 2 of last year, prohibits employers from paying wages less than the minimum wages, which will be notified by the central or state governments.  Minimum wages will be revised and reviewed by the central or state governments at an interval of not more than five years, with factors including skill of workers, and difficulty of work to be considered, it says. 

Anti-human trafficking

There is a lot more to be done. Ravi, who has been helping victims of human trafficking for the past six years, says he keeps getting calls asking for help. “I earlier worked for the government. I decided to leave that and start working to help people being trafficked. I get cases from UP, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Bihar, Assam and even Nepal.”

And while social media has been of tremendous help since the lockdown, he points to one recent case where he hasn’t heard back from the officials tagged.

Public Bolti thinks it’s early to say how big the scope is for social media. In cases of sex trafficking, for instance, they will not be able to make videos, which would perhaps keep the audience limited.

Another person we spoke with, who has been working in the social sector for the last 10 years is Rinku. She says the response from social media has helped them connect to the Chief Minister’s office in Rajasthan and to various officials in cases from Haryana.

There are 12 cases of human trafficking in total that has been dealt with through social media, since the lockdown, she tells us. But Rinku isn’t overly optimistic about using this platform. It is a good medium, she says, but the fact that they had to share, in every instance, the identities of those affected is not something feasible. “During lockdown, we had to because we were unable to go to the different districts from where we were getting calls for help.”

Instead, she believes, social media platforms will be helpful in putting pressure on officials after a rescue has been conducted. “If in case the standard operating procedure (SOP) is not followed, social media is a great way to put pressure on officials.”

With 520.08 million wireless telephone subscribers in rural India and 629.44 million in urban areas, according to this year’s TRAI report, the outreach can be huge.

The Home Ministry on 6 July issued an advisory to combat human trafficking during the pandemic. But it has not gone so far as to say that cases of trafficking have risen in this period. PM Nair, Chairperson, Centre of Excellence on Human Trafficking, Indian Police Federation says, if MHA were to point to a rise in cases of human trafficking, “People will ask, what is your database? But the data is hopelessly bad, people don’t report.”

As regards to social media, Nair says it’s an important link. “On the one hand it is being used by the exploiters and traffickers and on the other, law enforcement agencies and others if they are smart, can use it very well.”

He relates to us a case about migrants who had arrived in Goa to work at a hotel sometime in 2019.  “An inspector surfing the net came across a (Facebook) page where discussion was on about a hotel in Goa which wants to hire nine persons.”

Once they reached, Nair says, two of the boys and two girls were asked to come to the employer’s home for training. “They were not comfortable but as it had been just a month since being hired, they went along. The boys went to the beach, but one they returned they were not allowed back in. They thought something was amiss and immediately started discussing this issue on the Facebook group page.”

The inspector found this alert, identified the location and got them rescued. “Sensitivity and interest are required. Hand-holding is very important at the SP level”, he adds. And social media can be that pressure point to push officials to take action.