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Indian professor accused of treating students like 'slave labour'

An Indian-origin professor has been accused of coercing students to perform personal favours, including watching his dogs, watering his plants, pumping flood waters and be waiters at Indian cultural events in the United States.

The University of Missouri-Kansas City’s School of Pharmacy professor Ashim Mitra is being investigated after a local newspaper revealed allegations how he coerced students to perform personal favours, ranging from watching his dog to being waiters at Indian cultural events outside the university campus.

The Kansas City Star reports Professor Mitra, an Indian immigrant, made the demands exclusively of PhD candidates from India who were in the US on student visas.

Former student Kamesh Kuchimanchi, who graduated with a doctorate in pharmacology in 2001, said Mitra sent a car to the pharmacy lab to fetch students when overnight rains flooded his home in the late 1990s.

“He sent us to the basement,” Kuchimanchi said. “There was a lot of water. He told us you are going to clean it up. He handed us buckets. We spent the day bailing out the water. It was a lot of back-breaking work. It was slave labour.”

He also said Mitra often asked students to work at cultural events outside the university, asking them to "serve the people and clean up when it was over."

When Kuchimanchi once told Mitra he wouldn’t be a servant, “he threatened to kick me out of the university and force me to lose my visa and lose everything. That was his ammo. Either fall in line or you would be thrown out. You didn’t want to be in that situation where you have to go back home empty-handed.”

University of Missouri-Kansas City, United States

Several other students went on record to complain about the professor.  Their complaints were corroborated by Professor Mitra's former colleagues.

One of his colleagues, Mridul Mukherji, also from India, has sued Mitra and university officials.

The lawsuits claim that Professor Mitra mistreated vulnerable foreign students and that the university retaliated against Mr Mukherji when he complained.

According to allegations in pending litigation, the University not only knew about Mitra's behaviour, but administrators overlooked complaints for years because he was among the most successful faculty members in corralling millions in research dollars for the school.

Mitra has denied wrongdoing.

In a statement to the Kansas City Star, he said “Over the years, I have invited graduate students to my home where they have done work related to their courses of study, and at times eaten meals prepared by my wife,” he wrote.

“I have not required anyone to perform chores unrelated to their studies. …

“I do not understand the suggestion that anyone was concerned with their visas being at risk. I have worked with over 60 graduate students attending UMKC on F1 (study) visas, and I am not aware of any of those students having their visa status challenged or revoked.”

The first of the two lawsuits is set for trial next September.

Slavery in Australia is an illegal practice

In Australia, forcing someone or coercing someone through threats or deception is a criminal offence. 

The Australian Government uses the term ‘human trafficking and slavery’ to describe the range of exploitative crimes criminalised under Australian legislation.

The government defines human trafficking as ‘the movement of a person into, out of, or within Australia through the use of coercion, threats or deception for certain exploitive end purposes. These exploitive end purposes are slavery, servitude, forced labour, forced marriage and debt bondage.’

Slavery has been defined as something that ‘occurs when a person exercises the rights of ownership over another person. This includes the power to make the victim an object of purchase or to use their labour or services in a substantially unrestricted manner.’

Forced labour is something that ‘occurs when the victim does not consider themselves free to cease providing their labour or services OR to leave their place or area of work because of the use of coercion, threats or deception.’

The penalty for offences related to slavery, trafficking or forced labour charges ranges from nine to 25 years, under the Australian law.

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