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On the trail of forced labor in Bangladesh

By Siddharth Kara
Siddharth Kara is a Harvard human trafficking expert.
Siddharth Kara is a Harvard human trafficking expert.
  • Siddharth Kara is in Bangladesh examining the labor situation in tea factories.
  • Kara focused much of the week on the working conditions in the region.
  • Kara will travel to urban and rural regions in several south Asian countries

Editors Note: Harvard human trafficking fellow Siddharth Kara is undertaking a research trip around South Asia, looking at issues of forced labor, trafficking and child bondage. He will be getting access to the heart of the problem, and telling readers what he has discovered every week over the next ten weeks.

Srimongol, Bangladesh -- My research trip to Bangladesh ended near the town of Srimongol, where I investigated the country's tea industry. Much like their shrimp processing kinsmen to the south, the tea factories were locked down like prisons.

It took several visits and numerous tactics to gain entry.

In the factories that I managed to survey, as well as the countless acres of tea fields that I visited, I discovered a spectrum of worrying labor conditions that spanned everything from exceedingly low daily wages of $0.60 to reliable indications of forced labor.

Child labor appeared to be at a minimum, and there did not seem to be much in the way of debt bondage or human trafficking for the purposes of securing fresh labor.

Child labor in Bangladesh's shrimp industry

I will need to analyze the data I gathered more thoroughly before drawing firm conclusions, but for now I can say there was clear evidence of underpaid or unpaid wages, restriction of movement, severely unhygienic and hazardous conditions, and various forms of coercion to keep the factories humming 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Though human trafficking does not appear to be a part of what is happening in the tea factories today, it is very important to note that this is exactly how the tea industry in Bangladesh got started more than 160 years ago.

Around that time, the British began establishing tea plantations in the region, based on the successes of plantations in nearby Assam. To secure experienced labor, they trafficked thousands of people from Bihar and Orissa (in modern-day India) to the plantations in Bangladesh.

Generations later, the descendants of these trafficked laborers remain the primary workers in the Bangladesh tea factories. Every single worker I interviewed said his or her ancestry traced back to Orissa or Bihar.

India's child labor problem

This revelation serves as an important reminder that human trafficking is nothing new -- it is a longstanding mode of securing exploitable labor, though it has taken on far more efficient and profitable modes in an era where the supply of vulnerable people surpasses hundreds of millions, and transporting them is vastly more swift and less expensive than centuries ago.

While there are important differences that make contemporary human trafficking a more economically rewarding activity than before, there are other aspects that remain very much the same.

Just as the people once trafficked from Bihar and Orissa to northeast Bangladesh have been socially and economically depressed across generations, so too are human trafficking victims of today.

On the trail of human trafficking

For example, I have interviewed more than twenty Nigerian sex trafficking victims in Italy and Denmark. Those who are not deported to Nigeria are isolated, unable to access economic opportunities or education, and often resort to low wage work, crime, or end up being re-trafficked.

The point is, a glimpse at today's trafficked Indians in Bangladesh 160+ years after the fact offers a window into what we will see with today's millions of human trafficking victims if they are not provided a superior human rights response by destination countries.

Too often, such individuals are treated as criminals instead of victims. With limited rights of residency, work, and access to social safety nets, they will remain on the fringes of society struggling to survive, generation after generation.

All nations must provide far grater care for today's human trafficking victims, or else the cycle of vulnerability, exploitation, and trafficking will not end.

Having completed the journey in Bangladesh, we now have two weeks of field research in India. I will be east of Delhi by the evening, on my way to investigate child trafficking in the "carpet belt" of Uttar Pradesh.