Jimmy Chalk on Anti Slavery
16 April 2011
Corruption is often written off as a victimless crime—a white-collar offense whose consequences are hardly felt by those outside the halls of corporate and government power.
It wasn’t until I witnessed the crippling consequences of corruption firsthand that I realized that those who suffer most from corruption are those who have the least.
On a scorching afternoon in May of 2010, I accompanied a team of social workers, advocates, Indian government officials as they conducted a rescue operation on a brick-making facility in south India which was known to be employing bonded labor—a form of debt slavery that ensnares as many as 27 million people worldwide. Conditions in the kiln were appalling, with children as young as 6 years old—who, according to Indian law should have been in school—molding bricks and carting them around the sprawling facility in ramshackle wheelbarrows. 77 lower-caste migrant workers who had been trafficked from a neighboring state left the facility with us that day, carrying only their scant belongings and copious evidence of their illegal bondage.
However, upon reaching the government office in which an inquiry was to be conducted, it became clear that the government official in charge of issuing release certificates to these destitute victims had something more on his mind than justice. As affluent members of the local brick kiln owners’ association gathered at the entrance, they yelled caste-related slurs at their former captives and threats of violence at our team. Despite abundant evidence to establish the truth of the victims’ claims—wage books, injuries and harrowing stories of abuse—the official’s decision was announced, “Not bonded.” It was obvious that the weight of the owners’ influence on that day, in that region, was far greater than the gravity of the government officials’ duty to uphold the ideals of justice for all of the citizens under his jurisdiction—even the most impoverished.
As I watched 77 destitute victims of modern-day slavery board a train for their native villages without the legal protection or rehabilitation funds to which the victims are legally entitled, the insidious and profound effect of corruption on the poorest of the poor became painfully clear.
Laws to protect and empower the poor exist, but corruption renders them completely ineffective. Let us not tire in our efforts to bring complete transparency to corporations and governments, and in so doing, extend the rule of law to all those under its authority.