NEW DELHI – When Savita Debnath was 14, two unknown men came to her impoverished village in eastern India, promising her a job cleaning houses for $40 a month in nearby Kolkata. When she got there, agents forced her onto a train to New Delhi and sold her.
The buyers were a family that abused her and forced her to work long days cooking, cleaning, caring for two young children and preparing for parties without pay or being allowed to contact her family.
A report released Thursday by Australia’s Walk Free Foundation suggests that Savita’s story is a common one, not just in India but worldwide. The 162-nation survey estimated that there are 29.8 million modern-day slaves, and that bondage in some form exists in most countries, including the United States, Canada, Japan and Western European nations.
Although other countries have a greater proportion of their population in bondage, India has by far the largest number, an estimated 13.9 million people. That is more than four times that of the No. 2 country, China, with 2.9 million. Pakistan ranked third, with 2.1 million.
Mauritania and Haiti had the highest percentage of the population in bondage, 4 percent and 2 percent, respectively.
Modern slavery, the report says, “takes many forms, and is known by many names. Whether it is called human trafficking, forced labor, slavery or slavery-like practices … victims of modern slavery have their freedom denied, and are used and controlled and exploited by another person for profit, sex or the thrill of domination.”
In India, much of the traffic in enslaved domestic workers is organized by dubious employment agencies that are virtually unregulated despite a court order requiring the government to set operating guidelines.
“The placement agencies get all the money, and the poor girl gets nothing,” said Rishi Kant, a social activist with Shakti Vahini, the New Delhi-based civic group that rescued Savita. “The girls are abused – mentally, sexually, physically. Officials don’t care, and sometimes even want maids for their own houses, (which is) partly why they’re silent on this.”
Nick Grono, Walk Free’s chief executive, said by phone that modern-day slavery in India includes children forced into marriages, entire lower-caste communities forced to work in brick kilns or quarries, and people lured by money lenders to assume debts that can last for generations.
In terms of percentage of people in slavery, India is fourth on Walk Free’s list. In Mauritania, which ranks first, one nongovernmental organization has estimated that as much as 20 percent of the population is enslaved, although Walk Free uses the more conservative figure of 4 percent. Slavery in Mauritania goes back generations and is deeply entrenched, although the country has banned the practice and signed international conventions against slavery and child labor.
At the other extreme, Iceland is estimated to have 100 slaves amid its population of 320,000. The United States ranks 134th, with an estimated 60,000 people in bondage.
The rankings are based on a compilation of government statistics, multilateral agency information, NGO studies and Walk Free’s surveys.