South Asian Law Student Association Program Looks at Challenges of Contemporary Slavery
Web Editor - Published: October 5, 2011
“Human rights is not some abstract concept, but a daily struggle in their lives,” said Saju Mathew, the International Justice Mission (IJM) Director of Operations for South Asia, of poor people in the developing world as he spoke to a large audience of students, faculty, staff, and members of the public in the Ruby R. Vale Moot Courtroom on Monday, October 3rd.

Mathew's remarks came as part of a special forum, “Modern-Day Slavery: Human Trafficking and Bonded Labor,” put together by Widener Law’s South Asian Law Student Association (SALSA) in partnership with the International Justice Mission and the South Asian Bar Association of Delaware.

Following a reception held in the atrium of the Main Law Building, Asim Humayun, the President of SALSA, welcomed everyone in attendance and introduced Dean Linda L. Ammons. Both Dean Ammons and Asim thanked South Asian Bar Association of Delaware President Anuradha Gwal and Emilie Ninan, the founding President of the South Asian Bar Association of Delaware, for their assistance in putting the program together. Emilie Ninan then introduced Mr. Mathew.

Mathew noted that he considers his work with the International Justice Mission to be a real privilege, and he spoke briefly about the trafficking of young women for sex work before showing the IJM video “Ray of Hope” about Suhana, a young woman who was rescued from sexual bondage.

After the video, Mathew touched on the magnitude of the problem that modern-day slavery represents, suggesting that the problem is unsolvable unless we begin to look at the victims as individuals rather than a statistic. He also discussed the issues with legal solutions in the developing world, noting, “Its one thing to have a law, but its another thing to have it enforced,” adding that “4 billion people live outside the shelter of the rule of law.”

With the police not being trusted and a scarcity of lawyers because the law is not a respected profession in India, legal solutions can prove difficult. He stressed that law enforcement is not a social mechanism that the poor view as helpful in the developing world because it is often seen as corrupt. He emphasized, however, that existing laws in the developing world since the rise of the U.N. are actually well constructed, meaning that the solution is not to make new laws, but to better enforce the existing ones and “Fix the public justice system.”

“It requires the political will. It requires steadfastness,” Mathew stressed of the difficulty in setting up a working public justice system, noting, “In fact, there are more people in slavery than there were during the entire British slave trade,” and that more people are enslaved then ever before.

He then told several personal stories from cases that he was involved with during his time in India concerning the practice of bonded labor – schemes by which people are roped into long-term servitude through the payment of an advance which they then never seem to be able to work off. “Bonded labor is a crime, but one of the challenges is that it’s not always easy to identify from a distance,” concluded Mathew.

Following his remarks, Mr. Mathew took questions from the audience on a variety of topics including whether or not the population at large recognizes the problem of bonded labor, whether people are missed from their communities, and whether or not he was aware of any cases of revolt in the context of bonded labor. On the topic of people being missed from their communities, he said, “It’s often not just one person, but a whole village,” and he said that he was not aware of any cases where bonded laborers had revolted.

Saju Mathew is the Director of Operations, South Asia, for the human-rights agency International Justice Mission in Washington, D.C, and he served previously in a field office in India. The International Justice Mission works with local law enforcement officials from 18 offices located around the world to help ensure that the poor are better protected. Prior to his work with IJM, Mr. Mathew spent worked in the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office. He holds a law degree from Rutgers University School of Law.