Slavery here really is as horrific and terrible as that word suggests. It has been estimated that there are 27 million men, women and children—bonded labourers—held in literal slavery today, many of them in South Asia. Many are trapped by an illegal scheme commonly known as debt bondage, in which labourers are held through illegitimate debts they believe they owe their owners. Some were forced to borrow money to meet medical, funeral or other costs, others were lured by the promise of an advance on their wages. Both they and their owners often believe they have no right to freedom until their “debt” is paid. But the debt itself is rarely if ever calculated. IJM’s experience is that, even assuming punitive interest rates, most slaves have repaid their debts many times over through their labour. Nevertheless they are trapped: many are locked up each night. If they need to leave for any reason the owner may well require a hostage, perhaps a young child of the slave, to stay behind. The slaves are invariably subjected to threats, violence, and sometimes to rape and even murder. Such brutality, or even the threat of it, is often more effective than any physical restraint—these people are bonded in body and spirit.
The work of IJM
IJM aims to protect people from violent forces of injustice around the world by securing rescue and restoration for victims, criminal accountability of perpetrators, and ensuring that public justice systems work for the poor around the world. In India, as in every location in which the human rights agency operates around the world, we work with the law and the local law enforcement agencies, not against them. Historically, the legal system in India was created by the British, and to that extent it is rife with similarities to that of England and Wales. Of course, it is also full of differences, and I have already experienced how one can easily be lulled into a false sense of security by some of the common terminology.

Here in IJM’s Bangalore office, much of what we do is based upon the provisions of the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act 1976, a 30-year old piece of legislation that declares the entire system of bonded labour slavery illegal and criminalises the perpetrators. Rather like my favourite other piece of (roughly) 30-year old-legislation, the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 and its supporting case law, I am becoming equally conversant in the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act and all its nuances, idiosyncrasies and associated procedure.

My team consists of investigators, lawyers, social workers and support staff. To this new and very different context, I bring my experience in the UK—including many years’ experience of (and I generalise) husbands reluctant to disclose the true nature and extent of their financial resources, and wives trying to prove there is more than meets the eye. This has given me many useful skills which I apply daily here. The men and women who exploit slave labour to enhance their own bottom lines also rely on deception to maintain their criminal enterprises. With an investigative, detail-oriented skill-set developed on this proving ground, I am more able to support my team as they work to document proof of slavery crimes in our region.

Transferrable skills

At the Bar I also learned the need for patience and tenacity in obtaining evidence and pursuing justice for my clients. Here, the obstacles to be overcome include not only defendants whose methodology in seeking to escape justice would provide ample fodder for any ethics lecture, but also courts, local administrations and police who are often overstretched, sometimes uninformed and occasionally worse.

For example, in a recent case following the rescue of a group of slaves from a brick kiln, we embarked on the legal procedure to obtain their formal release from bonded slavery. We encountered, first, a physical challenge: a mob of nearly 50 people including a local politician, roused by the brick kiln owner burst into the local tribunal when it was in session to try and terminate the hearing and return the slaves to the place from which they were rescued a few hours earlier. Fortunately, this attempt was resisted, and the tribunal recommended the legal release of the slaves. Next, a legal challenge: this recommendation was rejected by a higher official for the most insubstantial and dubious of reasons. We may never know if the mob got to that official first. In any event, my team’s patience and persistence over literally hundreds of what I used to think of as “billable” hours resulted in a reconsideration of the slaves’ case and a wonderfully reversed verdict: they were released from their bonded debt and made completely free.

The final similarity with family law is people. At the family Bar, my clients were invariably people, not institutions. And they were people going through one of the most traumatic and stressful experiences the developed world has to offer – a fully litigated divorce. I consider myself fortunate to have been able to work within a (broadly) fair legal framework to help bring justice and order out of the wrong and disorder in the divorces in which I was instructed. I am still working for people, but a very different group – slaves. Many have never known freedom, having been born in slavery – and many have no idea that their bondage is actually against the laws of their nation. Whilst there is just law here, the system does not often work for the poor, the disenfranchised and the downtrodden. But I have the privilege of watching the faces, the lives, the hopes and the opportunities of enslaved people transformed when we fight successfully for their freedom and rehabilitation. With each case we undertake, we ensure that the legal systems actually works for the people it was designed to protect and we learn more about how to correct it in the future. And I would not be doing any of it without the experience I gained at the Bar.

James Ewins, barrister, IJM Field Office Director, Bangalore