'Rotten' Shows That Slavery Is Everywhere

‘Rotten’ Shows That Slavery Is Everywhere

It is important to watch the documentary ‘Rotten’ on Netflix to understand how people prove Galbraith’s acute observation: ‘Under capitalism, man exploits man. Under communism, it’s just the opposite.’ Slavery!

My eyes opened up to the terrible impact slavery had on the lives of indentured labour when I visited to Fiji and Trinidad & Tobago during 2002 to 2009. Yes, indentured workers were treated like slaves.

Memories of my visits flashed in my mind as I watched the documentary ‘Rotten’ on Netflix.

Long and short of the story – Indian indentured labour filled the vacuum created by abolition of slavery. What is the meaning of ‘Indentured?’ It means ‘a contract binding one person to work for another for a given period of time.’ This is ‘bonded’ labour. What is the difference between ‘Bonded labour’ and ‘Indentured labour’? Two differences. Indentured labour was the bonded labour British took to Fiji and the Caribbean, while Bonded labour mostly refers to the workers working within India. And the second difference? The spelling or nomenclature!

Indian indentured emigration to Fiji began in 1879. It was started by Sir Arthur Gordon, Governor of Fiji (1875-80), to meet the shortage of labour caused by the prohibition of commercial employment of the Fijians and by the increasing uncertainty and cost of the Polynesian labour trade. (Girmit.org). Indian indentured labour was taken there, often by deceit by the recruiters.

The situation was no different in the Caribbean. The demand for Indian indentured labourers increased dramatically after the abolition of slavery in 1834. They were sent to work on crops such as sugarcane. The first ship carrying the Indian indentured labourers arrived in Surinam in June 1873 followed by six more ships during the same year. ‘Indian Arrival Day’ is celebrated in Trinidad on May 30 each year, and it is celebrated across Caribbean in all countries on different days.

An unprecedented problem was faced. It was about men to women ratio! Now read this: “…. the proportion of 33 women for every 100 men was required by the Indian Government by law, and then, last of all, the ratio was raised to 40 per 100. This last proportion, of forty women for every hundred men, was still being actively carried out in Indian recommitment only a few months ago. As late as March, 1917, the Government of India was still allowing recruiters in India to roam about the country and by guile and cunning get hold of simple, ignorant village women. Recruiters were still inveigling these women into going out to the colonies, the agents being paid at the rate of so much per head, per woman—a higher price being’ given for a woman than for a man! Only on March 12th, 1917, was this iniquitous system with all its fraud and deception abandoned.” See Indian Indentured Labour

And here is what Ramraj Maharaj records: “Among the women there was an attractive and married Muslim. The European grabbed her and tried to drag her away. I told her husband, Nur Mohammed, to intervene. He seemed scared and did nothing. After a while I picked up a molasses bucket and struck the European on the back and he ran off. The woman I took to her husband.” At times the Europeans separated men and women including their wives. And sent them to work at different locations. Do I have to tell you what happened next?

Stories of indentured labourers, their life and punishing work at the sugarcane fields, are so heart rending that it is difficult to believe that men can be so cruel. But they can be! That is what Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment tells us, right?

All this seems to be a distant past, and we think it is no longer the reality today. So here is a question – when was slavery abolished? Mauritania was the last country to abolish it in 1981 by a decree. But Mauritania formally passed a law against slavery, making it a crime, only in 2007! So, the world saw slavery getting formally abolished just thirteen years ago.

Sugar, the product of slavery

‘Rotten’ tells us the story of Jamaican workers who were brought in Florida, USA to harvest and cut sugarcane. Their plight is no different from the Indian indentured workers of the nineteenth century. This program to get ‘flexible workforce’ (Does it ring bell? Does it sound familiar term in fashion these days?) started in 1942 and H2 Visa was used for this purpose. It became important because of the Cuban revolution which stopped supply of sugar to USA. This resulted in slavery in disguise. Such was the exploitation that there is a movie by Stephanie Black titled ‘H2 Workers’ on the plight of the workers.

Rape, exploitation, terrible working conditions, not paying assured wages are all ills associated with exploitation and slavery. South Africa’s apartheid regime sanctioned all this with gross human rights violation. While slavery was abolished, it was given other names – Indentured labour and H2 Visa Flexible agricultural workers.

When I spoke to people in Trinidad, they added the dimension of racism. I visited the swimming pool which was earlier reserved for ‘Whites Only’. My guide said that when his father saw him playing in the pool – the apartheid was gone by then – he was in tears. The old man had thought that his children will also suffer racism.

The truth of the matter is that if people can be exploited, it will happen. Systems and procedures are established to avoid it, but they get flouted. Owners of enterprises wield huge money-power. Political leaders are unable to ignore it willingly or otherwise. ‘Rotten’ mentions that President Bill Clinton chose to take the call of a sugar baron while Monica was giving him ‘service.’

Rotten carries the stories of modern-day exploitation or slavery of people at the other end of supply chain. In India we have cases of exploitation through ‘Sumangala’ scheme. Read more about it in this report titled Captured By Cotton. And we know the tragedy of Bangladesh workers in apparel industry.

I have in recent times covered slavery in various blogs, here are some: The Contracts of Exploitation , The Tragic Life Of Contract Workers At BPCL , and The Terrible Life of Temporary Workers .

The ‘Rotten’ episode which follows the sugarcane story (A Sweet Deal) focuses on cocoa. Last year, on June 5, 2019, Washington Post carried a story ‘Cocoa’s Child Laborers’ . It carries the by-line ‘Mars, Nestlé and Hershey pledged nearly two decades ago to stop using cocoa harvested by children. Yet much of the chocolate you buy still starts with child labor.’

All this comes to my mind as I wonder what would be the fate of people with neo-liberal economic policies in full flow in India and elsewhere. Let us return to Galbraith’s observation ‘Under capitalism, man exploits man. Under communism, it’s just the opposite.’

Choose your economic policies, choose your laws and yet slavery in different form flourishes unabated. Nina Simone, American singer and Song writer said “Slavery has never been abolished from America’s way of thinking.” Why America? It has never been abolished from our way of thinking and from our way of working too.

Vivek S Patwardhan

“What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others”

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