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Victory for the disposables: The sentencing of the Hindujas

June 24, 2024 at 1:30 pm

Indian-Swiss billionaire family member Namrata Hinduja (C) arrives at the Geneva’s courthouse with her lawyers Yael Hayat (L) and Robert Assael (R) at the opening day of her trial for human trafficking on January 15, 2024. [GABRIEL MONNET/AFP via Getty Images]

In his seminal work on modern slavery, Kevin Bales does away with certain, antiquated concepts. In its insidious, older form, one focused on the concept of natal alienation, slaves were chattels and assets, owned outright. Each slave system was distinct and protean, if marked by certain universal features.

The universal feature of ownership, at least when it comes to its modern iteration, has little or no role to play in the modern slave system. Modern slaves can be found in abundance. Disposability is the vital feature of modern slavery, the abundance of vulnerable persons its source. Care for human welfare is of secondary concern. In Disposable People, Bales offers up five studies with a specific focus on a relevant industry or trade: prostitution in Thailand; the water sale market in Mauritania; the charcoal industry in Brazil; brickmaking in Pakistan; and indentured farm labour in India.

Such work, for all its stately horror, focuses on the dynamics and practices of specific industries in selected countries.  Another, just as terrifying feature is the international market for such disposable people, who pullulate the economies of developed countries, working in conditions unseen and undocumented. The modern slaver, in such instances, is obscured behind regulatory opacity, a hidden puppeteer often protected by a vast fortune and public ignorance.

On 21 June, four members of the Hinduja family, the UK’s wealthiest according to the 2024 Sunday Times Rich List with an estimated value of £37.196 billion, were convicted in a Swiss court of first instance for exploiting staff at their Geneva mansion with “slave like treatment”. They include Prakash Hinduja and his wife Kamal, their son Ajay and his wife Namrata. The first two received sentences of four and a half years; the latter, four years. The family business manager, Najib Ziazi, received an 18-month suspended sentence.

The convictions arise from a case stretching back to 2018, when Swiss prosecutors raided the Hinduja villa in Geneva’s Cologny municipality, offices of the Hinduja Bank, and various associated local businesses belonging to the Hinduja group.

A number of accusations were levelled against the family about exploiting the workers. Passports had been seized; they were confined to the villa; and they laboured for long hours with minimal pay (less than one-tenth the standard rate for equivalent local jobs), in some cases up to 18 hours a day, seven days a week. The Hindujas, claimed prosecutor Yves Bertossa, “spent more for one dog than one of their servants.” The budget item labelled “Pets” was allocated somewhere in the order of 8,584 Swiss Francs a year (almost $10,000).

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Speaking only Hindi, the workers were paid in rupees wired to Indian accounts inaccessible to them in Switzerland. They had little in terms of vacations and were accommodated in rudimentary conditions.

Lawyers representing the Hinduja family were keen to point out that the convictions were not commensurate with the findings. Their clients had been “acquitted of all human trafficking charges.” For that reason, they were “appalled and disappointed by the rest of the decision made in this court of first instance, and we have of course filed an appeal to the higher court thereby making this part of the judgment not effective.”

Other qualifying points were also noted. The Hindujas had not been detained and should still be presumed to be innocent pending final judgment by the highest authority in the country. Various plaintiffs had also withdrawn their complaints expressing the view that they had never intended to be involved in the legal proceedings. (A confidential out-of-court settlement has been reached with three of them.)

One of the lawyers representing the Hindujas, Robert Assael, proposed that the exploited employees “were grateful” for the offer of “a better life” by the family. Yaël Hayat, who represents Ajay Hinduja, argued further that using discrepant salaries as a measure of ill-treatment said little about the perks of board and lodgings.

In a clumsy attempt to diminish the serious conditions afflicting the workers in the villa, Hayat casuistically suggested that, “When they sit down to watch a movie with the kids, can that be considered work? I think not.” With the vulgar callousness of a neoliberal economist, she pointed out further that the staff pay for one of the villa employees was “good” relative to what she received in India. The prosecutors, it was argued, had conflated the goals of justice with social justice in attempting to “break the rich to make the poor less poor.”

No finer, odious statement can be made about the modern, exploitable conditions of the disposables. They are mistreated, but things can always be worse. And if they are willing to present their labour to parties keen to exploit them, why the fuss?

Thankfully, at least when it comes to conditions in Switzerland, the Hindujas are not the only ones being placed under prosecutorial scrutiny. Last year, four domestic workers from the Philippines took legal action against one of Geneva’s diplomatic missions to the United Nations, claiming non-payment over a number of years. It was a brutal reminder that migrant domestic workers remain a seemingly endless quarry for exploitation and disposal.

Such cases also bring to mind the wisdom noted in Honoré de Balzac’s Le Père Goriot (1835): “The secret of a great success for which you are a loss to account for is a crime that has never been found out, because it was properly executed.”

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