In the last two months, more than 170 men, mostly Bangladeshis, have been rescued from human traffickers in the jungles of Thailand. Some of the men described how they had been offered work, but when they showed up, were drugged, tied up and dragged onto boats where they were beaten and starved. The news caused outrage among Bangladeshis, many of whom blamed their government for failing to protect its citizens. Others expressed dismay at the discovery that this kind of modern-day slavery still exists.
The fact that these men were so easily lured into bonded labour abroad is proof of the hopelessness of their lives at home. Although some of the men said that they had not known that they would be shipped to Thailand, most of them were ready to set sail into the unknown. They were desperate for work.
I grew up in Bangladesh where, in every middle-class household, there’s at least one live-in kajer meye – a maid or “working girl” – often with one or two of her young children serving the family. She works from morning until night, sometimes for very little money, sometimes just for food scraps and basic lodging.
In our house she was called “Rahela’s Ma,” Mother of Rahela. My siblings and I grew up with her, seeing her every day: cooking, fetching water, combing our hair before school, washing our clothes in the backyard. We never thought it was odd that she did not have a name of her own. We saw Rahela, too, a snotty-nosed baby, sitting on the kitchen floor in oversize hand-me-downs from our family. She was always crying, as her mother was busy grinding turmeric and chiles, coriander and cumin, and arranging them on the spice holder that resembled an artist’s palette.
Years later, when I went back to visit, I was told that Rahela’s mother had died. It was Rahela who now pounded the spices, her arms barely reaching the top of the grinding stone. She was 10 years old.
There are millions of child labourers in Bangladesh; 400,000 between the ages of six and 17 are domestic workers. While there have been many calls to protect the rights of these children, most of them remain, as Nishat Mirza of Save the Children, Bangladesh, says, “inside the room, outside the law”.
Rahela’s relationship with my parents could be defined as one of bonded labour. Although my mother, along with tens of thousands of South Asians, would scream in denial, it is a form of slavery.
Last year, the Global Slavery Index put Bangladesh 10th on the list of countries with the highest number of enslaved people; India ranked first and Pakistan third. The modern face of slavery can express itself in many forms: in the lives of domestic workers, bonded and forced labour in rural and urban areas, low-paying factory work, errand boys in offices, flower sellers at traffic junctions, tea boys in makeshift eateries and sex workers.
In Bangladesh’s garment factories, the workers may not have been kidnapped or sold, but considering the hazardous circumstances in which they work, the long hours and the monthly wage of as little as $ 50, it is hard to know how to define this form of “employment.” In April 2013, after more than 1,000 people perished in the rubble of the Rana Plaza factory building in the suburbs of Dhaka, the pope denounced as “slave labour” the conditions under which they had worked.
Human rights campaigners have long struggled to improve working conditions, but some attempts have backfired. In 1993, when Congress proposed the Child Labor Deterrence Act, which would have outlawed the importation of goods produced by child labor, tens of thousands of workers under the age of 18 in Bangladeshi garment factories were pre-emptively fired. Many had migrated to the city for work, and now found it difficult to return to their villages. Instead they ended up in sex work, and during the late 1990s, there was a significant rise in street-based prostitution in Dhaka.
Kabir Akon, a child rights campaigner who works for Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust, says that the complexity of class and caste is one of the main reasons it is so hard to improve labour conditions. The culture of dependence, and the old belief in fate or karma, that God made us this way, that some are bodolok and some chhotolok – literally, big people and small people – perpetuates deep social divisions. In most Bangladeshi homes, domestic servants who work for practically nothing rarely complain; in fact there’s a sense of gratitude and veneration toward the employer. And many such “employers” argue that they are creating jobs for people who would otherwise be trafficked to West Asia or Southeast Asia, like those men in Thailand.
We all know horror stories about maids in Saudi Arabia, scalded by boiling water, and men with mottled backs where they had been beaten. Surely they would have been better off with us, these Bangladeshi employers tell themselves.
We should be outraged over what happened to these Bangladeshi men in the Thai jungle. But we should also be mortified by the terrible indignity that they face in their own land, which is forcing many of them into a life of servitude abroad.
The writer is a film-maker and the author of the memoir “The Unlikely Settler”
© 2014 The New York Times