Enslaved for life

Published: July 16, 2013 - 15:59

The people in the West are least bothered about the underlying reasons which cause massive tragedies like the one that happened in Dhaka
Lakshmi  Kaul London

When 19-year-old Reshma Begum was miraculously pulled out from the rubble of the Rana Plaza in Dhaka 17 days after its collapse the world rejoiced.  The joy at Reshma’s rescue was shared across the world in a display of common, decent humanity.  However, we should also be ashamed of the events which led to this ordeal.  Whilst the authorities in Bangladesh investigate and try to bring to justice those responsible, the people in the West must examine their culpability in the tragic event.

By UK standards Reshma was held in conditions of slavery – working long hours in poor and unsafe conditions for a derisory wage that barely fed her family. As events unfolded, the UK gasped with hypocritical outrage at conditions endured by workers in Bangladesh.  Hypocritical because there was little or no mention of the one of the most significant factors in causing the tragedy.  The seemingly unsatiable demand in the West for cheap, virtually disposable clothing at any human cost must bear some responsibility for the events that left Reshma struggling to survive amidst her fellow workers who paid with their lives.

It has been estimated that a shirt sourced in Bangladesh and sold in the UK for £8 provided workers like Reshma with an income of a few pence a week.  To have doubled Reshma wage, to have provided a profit margin that allowed for building maintenance or to have help fund better regulation of the industry might have only increased the cost of the shirt by a minimal, still affordable amount. But the voracious and unconcerned consumers in the West give it little thought.

The Medaille Trust in the UK works everyday on issues of human trafficking and slavery.  On a regular basis it supports victims who have been trafficked into the UK from India, Pakistan, Nepal or Bangladesh.  They are trafficked in to work as slaves in the sex industry or for exploitation in labour markets such as catering, agriculture and construction. A significant number are traded as domestic servants. 

Over the years the trust has come to see that its work will never end until the twin pillars that support the trade – vulnerability and demand are tackled.

Until the underlying demand for cheap slave produced goods is addressed and replaced with a demand for fairly priced items, ethically produced with full supply chain transparency tragedies like Rana Plaza will continue to occur. The vulnerability of the people traffickers and slave masters prey on is an important cog in the wheel of trafficking and slavery. Until poverty, persecution of minorities and gender discrimination are a thing of the past then there will always be victims to meet the demand for slaves that exists.   


Take the case of Atwal, an Indian lady who has been a domestic servant for most of her life. Her mother is a cancer patient who lives with her 5-year-old child in India. Atwal had worked as a domestic servant for a variety of Arab families in the Gulf.  Whilst in Oman her employer terminated her contract and said she must to the UK as a servant with another family.  Visas were arranged and the journey to the UK was uneventful but things took a sinister turn upon arrival.  On arrival her passport was taken from her, her mobile phone was confiscated, her wages ceased and the family began to treat her as a slave.  Food cupboards were locked when the family was out and after preparing and serving meals she was forced to sit and eat inferior food from a bowl whist sitting on the floor at their feet.  She was slapped several times by a member of the family and refused protective gloves for washing up or doing laundry which led to dermatitis on the hands.   She was made to sleep on the kitchen floor and only allowed to leave the house to escort the children to and from school.  Eventually, distraught at not being able to contact her family, Atwal left the house and presented at a police station.

 Indeed, it does not seem that even other tragedies closer to home such as the death of 58 Chinese being trafficked into the UK who suffocated in a closed lorry in 2000 at Dover harbour or the 21 trafficked Chinese shell fishermen drowned at Morecombe Bay in the UK in 2004 have made any impact.  As the Project Director of the Medaille Trust, Mike Emberson says:  ‘It is a damming indictment of UK citizens that the deaths of foreign nationals like this seem for the most part never to be connected with the behaviour of consumers in the West.’

Here we are truly in a global village – as much as the Medaille Trust sees an overrepresentation of Dalits amongst the Indians it deals with, there are mostly Roma among the European victims it has been working with.  The Global Village is indeed an ugly one at times.  As Emberson says ‘In order to make any sort of impact the NGOs around the world are going to have to learn to work together to reduce the vulnerability of those communities being exploited – for this reason we are beginning to explore our international responsibilities’.



The people in the West are least bothered about the underlying reasons which cause massive tragedies like the one that happened in Dhaka
Lakshmi  Kaul London

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