Law and Legal Practice in Asia- Interning at HRLN

By Morgaan Blazina

1. Where did you intern?

I interned at the Human Rights Law Network (‘HRLN’) which is one of the largest human rights NGOs in India. The organisation is made up of both lawyers and social activists. HRLN files around 100 petitions to the Supreme Court of India every year with a focus on issues such as women’s rights, employment rights, tribal rights, Dalit rights, juvenile rights and bonded labour. While we were interning at HRLN the government was cracking down on NGOs in our suburb, with the government raiding organisations that were suspected of “corruption” as a means of temporarily shutting them down. Thankfully, however, our organisation was not raided while we were there.

The interns and some advocates at HRLN

The issue that I worked on during my internship was bonded labour, a form of modern-day slavery. Bonded labour or debt bondage is a system whereby a person takes a loan from someone (usually a human trafficker) in exchange for promising to work off the incurred debt by working without pay for up to three years at a time. There is usually a promise that the labourer will be paid a lump sum at the end of this period, however this rarely happens. In most cases a person works the agreed upon time, only to be told that they still haven’t worked off their debt and have to continue working. These people, including children, are usually forced to work between 12-16 hours a day, are given little food and are abused by their employers.

There are more victims of modern-day slavery in India than any other country in the world; it is estimated that there are up to 300 million victims of bonded labour.  HRLN mostly works with bonded labourers that have been rescued from brick-kilns, however I also met some labourers rescued from quarries. Our supervisor would find out where there were bonded labourers, rescue them and then bring them to Delhi in order to try and get them access to the rehabilitative schemes offered by the government

2. Can you describe an average day of work there?

It’s hard to describe an average day at work because every day was different. We probably spent at least half of our time out of the office.

While our primary task involved writing a book about bonded labour (which we surprisingly managed to pull together), I also wrote press releases, compiled statements, conducted research for a petition, hosted a discussion on female genital mutilation and did field work.

Nizamudden East Homeless Shelter in Delhi, distributing some clothes and shoes that we bought for the bonded labourers.

In our first week we went to a homeless shelter to interview some bonded labourers in order to compile their statements for the use of a writ. They told us about how they were beaten and starved by their employers. One woman was forced to give birth in the brick kiln while her employers refused to allow her to take her baby to a doctor after it suffered from severe heat rash as a result of having spent the first 10 months of its life in a brick kiln.

As we were leaving the shelter children ran up to us begging to help. All we could do was tell them that we couldn’t help them everyone– that particular memory has stuck with me.

Later that day one of the women from the shelter brought her three-year-old daughter to the office because she couldn’t afford to go take her child to a doctor. Luckily, one of the interns knew someone that was a doctor that offered to treat the child for free; we later found out the child had jaundice and hepatitis (both of which could lead to the death of the child if untreated). At the same time some traffickers came to our office because they wanted to try and beat up my supervisor in the street. I remember the security guard came down to the basement where the interns sat and told all the men to go upstairs to protect us. Eventually the police arrived, and the human traffickers tried to bribe the police and told them that they were the lawyers and my supervisor was in fact the trafficker. Apparently, my supervisor claimed that if they truly were the white-collar workers they claimed to be, they would be able to spell the term ‘white collar’ in English. Thankfully, they couldn’t, proving that they were in fact the bad guys.  My supervisor wasn’t beaten up and the police weren’t bribed — so a good result, I guess.

A group of us with some of the other interns at the Supreme Court of India

We also went to both the High Court of New Delhi and the Supreme Court of India. I’ve never sweated more in my life than when I went to the courts in Delhi as they didn’t allow us to take drink bottles inside. Having to wear a blazer in 40+ degree weather with 80% humidity meant that I had literal droplets of sweat dripping off me.

Another strange day I had was when we had an anti-vaxxer come to HRLN for a 90-minute presentation about how vaccines cause autism. Honestly it was so strange to have a European woman come and talk about how unnecessary vaccines are in India when only one in two children in India even make it to the age of five and 50% of people in the country live in poverty. I can’t remember every ridiculous thing she said however she made sure to cite everything on her slides as google!

3. What was a highlight of your trip?

This may sound really weird, but the highlight of my trip was working. I loved the people I was working with and I loved the work I was doing. I’m really interested in modern-day slavery, so I enjoyed even the most mundane tasks knowing that the work I was doing was helping the organisation. Despite working 50+ hours a week, I really loved what we were doing. I was truly inspired by the lawyers and their dedication to their work. It was an experience I could never have had in Australia and I learned more about human rights law than I ever could have in a classroom

4. What part of the subject surprised you most?

Honestly the most shocking thing about the trip (and also the thing I am most proud of) is the fact that I was one of the only TWO students who did not get Delhi belly!

Government Housing Estate in Faridabad, Uttar Pradesh

I must acknowledge that the work we did was incredibly exhausting, both physically and mentally. Given that we were working on cases involving horrible human rights abuses, it was the kind of work you couldn’t stop thinking about after you left the office. It wasn’t uncommon for some of the interns to break down crying at work or have to leave early because they were so affected by something they were working on.

Yet even with the heat, rain, poor air quality, constant fear of food poisoning and hard work it was an amazing experience and definitely the best subject I’ve done at MLS.

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