BOUNDED LABOUR: A Weird Form of Slavery

“No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms” -Article 4 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

One of the least known form of slavery today and yet the most widely used method of enslaving people is bounded labour or debt bondage. A person becomes a bounded labourer when their labour is demanded as a means of repayment for a loan. Bonded labourers are forced to work to repay debts their employers say they owe, and they are not allowed to work for anyone else. As such, various forms of force are used to make sure they stay.

Incidentally, the person is tricked or trapped into working for very little or no pay, often for an entire week. The value of their work is invariably greater than the original sum of money borrowed. This form of slavery has existed for hundreds of years. In Southern Asia it is rooted in the caste system and continues to flourish in feudal agricultural relationships, cottage industries and factories.

A caste system is a social system where people are ranked into groups based on heredity within rigid systems of social stratification, especially those that constitute Hindu India. Some Scholars deny that true caste systems are found outside India. The caste is a closed group whose members are severely restricted in their choice of occupation and degree of social participation. Marriage outside the caste is prohibited. Social status is determined by the caste of one's birth and may only rarely be transcended. Certain religious minorities may voluntarily constitute a quasi-caste within a society, but they are less apt to be characterized by cultural distinctiveness than by their self-imposed social segregation. A specialized labor group may operate as a caste within a society otherwise free of such distinctions like the ironsmiths in parts of Africa. In general, caste functions to maintain the status quo in a society.

“ The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted fifty years ago, proclaimed that ‘ no one shall be held in slavery and servitude…’ it is difficult to believe that as this great and tragic century draws to a close, the problems of slavery and slave labour remains unresolved… All of us have a critical role to play in ensuring that the issues of enslaved labour and debt bondage are returned to the top of human rights agenda.” This statement was made in 1998 by Mary Robinson, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Debt bondage, debt slavery, bonded labor or peonage was also used as a means of trapping indentured labourers into working on plantations in Africa, the Caribbean and South- East Asia following the abolition of the slave trade or the truck system. The term truck system refers to a form of unfree labour in which workers are paid in goods and/or services, instead of money. It should be noted that truck systems, per se, are distinguished from truck wages, a generic term for non-cash payments, which in some historical contexts have been utilised by free workers. There are extreme examples of chained labourers kept under armed guard in Pakistan. In many cases they are kept under surveillance; sometimes under lock and key.

Poverty and threats of violence force many bounded labourers to stay with their masters, since they would not otherwise be able to eat or have a place to sleep. The existence of bounded labour stems from the fact that some people are prepared to exploit the desperation of others who are poverty stricken. They are often without land or education as such, their need for cash just for daily survival forces people to sell their labour in exchange for a lump sum of money or a loan.

Consequently, entire families are kept like cattle on farms in India, Pakistan and Nepal; migrant agricultural workers are equally forced to remain on ranches in Brazil, children trafficked for profit in West Africa and the organized export of women into domestic and sexual slavery in Europe. Despite the fact that bounded labour is illegal in most countries where they are found, governments are rarely willing to enforce the law, or to ensure that those who profit from it are punished.

Article 1 of the United Nations Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institution and practices similar to slavery in 1956 declared that “each of the States Parties to this convention shall take all practicable and necessary legislative and other measures to bring about progressively and as soon as possible the complete abolition or abandonment of the following institutions and practices, where they still exist… Debt bondage, that is to say, the status or condition arising from a pledge by a debtor of his personal services or of those of a person under his control as security for a debt, if value of those services as reasonably assessed is not applied towards the liquidation of the debt or the length and nature of those services are not respectively limited and defined”. While 1(a) indicated that parties to the Convention are required to adopt measures to bring about the complete abolition of debt bondage.

According to Justice PN Bhagwati, Indian Supreme Court Judge in 1982, Bonded Labourers are non-being, exiles of civilization, living a life worse than that of animals, for the animals are at least free to roam about as they like… The system, under which one person can be bounded to provide labour for another for years and years until an alleged debt is supposed to be wiped out, which never seems to happen during the lifetime of the bounded labourer, is totally incompatible with the new egalitarian socio-economic order which we have promised to build.

Going by Anti- Slavery International fact sheet - today’s fight for tomorrow’s freedom, there are some twenty million bounded labourers in the world. Bounded labour is expanding due to poverty and the global demand for sources of cheap, expendable labour. Bonded labour was also used as a method of colonial labour recruitment for plantations in Africa, the Caribbean and South East Asia. Bonded labourers are routinely threatened with and subjected to physical and sexual violence. They are kept under various forms of surveillance, in some cases by armed guards. There are very few cases where chains are actually used (although it does occur) but these constraints on the bonded labourers are every bit as real and as restricting.

Section 2 of the Slave Trade Act 1843 enacted by the British Parliament declared "persons holden in servitude as pledges for debt", that is, bonded laborers, to "be slaves or persons intended to be dealt with as slaves" for the purpose of the Slave Trade Act 1824 and the Slavery Abolition Act 1833.

Bonded labor and in particular, bonded child labour, exist in Pakistan, India and Nepal. These children known in India as Peyjolis and Kuthias, are, in effect the slaves of feudal landowners or carpet loom masters. Where the whole family is in bondage, the child must watch helplessly as his mother is assaulted by his master in the bushes, or watch his father being lashed at the plough or in the quarry.

Around the world, millions of children have never had a childhood. They are forced to work, sometimes as child laborers, sometimes as virtual slaves. This practice is illegal and just plain wrong. Child labor is a crime committed against nearly 220 million children, or one in every seven, ages 5 to 17, around the world. The majority are girls in the Asia Pacific region.

Many of the worst forms of child labor are a problem in India, Nepal and Pakistan, where RugMark operates. These include child trafficking, commercial sexual exploitation, bonded child labor, child domestic work and the recruitment and use of children for armed conflict or drug trafficking.

RugMark is a global nonprofit organization working to end illegal child labor in the carpet industry and to offer educational opportunities to children in India, Nepal, and Pakistan. Since its launch in 1995 child labor in the carpet industry has been reduced by two-thirds (66%).

Demand for child labor is so high that desperate parents sell their children into bondage. According to UNICEF, 14% of children in India between the ages of 5 and 14 are engaged in child labor activities including carpet production.

While some people mistakenly think it is better when all members of a family work, child labor actually makes poverty worse. Child workers come cheaply and sometimes at no cost, and drive down wages for adult laborers. Plus children who work forfeit an education that could have helped them achieve a higher standard of living as adults. Child laborers are vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, are subject to long hours of physically demanding and unrelenting work, and suffer from deprivation and poor health.

A movement known as Bonded Labour Liberation Front- Bandhua Mukti Morcha (BMM) was formed in 1981 to wage a battle against the pernicious bonded labour system in India. Administrative and political will to carry out the Constitutional mandate and enforce prohibitive laws of the land failed to produce any results. Against all odds, Bandhua Mukti Morcha has achieved the release of over 1, 24,000 bonded Indians from the shackles of slavery. A large number of them have been rehabilitated. From the Carpet Industry alone, about a thousand children have been rescued and restored to their parents. Their rehabilitation has been monitored effectively. BMM has started a campaign for the provision of non-formal, full time education for these children, along with the supply of nutrition to each and also some food security to their poor families.

As a result of BMM’s efforts, the leaders of the leading political parties have expressed their concern on the issue of child labour and often made a mention of it in their election manifestos in Parliamentary elections. Bandhua Mukti Morcha has been campaigning for a national minimum wage equivalent to first-day salary of a class IV employee in Government service. Its revision is to be done on cost price index as is done for the Government employees. The State Governments may fix minimum wage according to the local conditions but not below the National Minimum Wage.

Bandhua Mukti Morcha holds that slavery persists in our age in various forms. The bonded labour system is one of them. Child labour is another kind of bonded labour both arise out of socio-economic and historical reasons. India, the largest democratic country in the world according to their estimates has 65 million bonded child labourers, and 300 million adult labourers living a life of bondage and contemporary forms of slavery. This is despite Constitutional guarantees and prohibitive laws like the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act 1976, the Child labour (Prohibition and Regulation Act) 1986 and International Conventions on the subject. Child labour (5 years to 14 years of age) is rampant not only in agriculture but also in industries such as those manufacturing matches, locks, carpets, stone quarries, brick kilns, tanneries and diamond cutting and polishing units. These children are denied their fundamental right to childhood, to education, to play and to dream like a normal child. They have to labour for more than 8 hours every day. Legal and human rights battles on their behalf have been successfully fought in the Supreme Court of India. Parliament too has been approached. United Nations Human Rights Commission, International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the United Nations International Children Emergency Fund (UNICEF) have been sensitised. Yet, the 20 year-old struggles is only a beginning. A lot more remains to be done.

Bandhua Mukti Morcha has been making a demand for a National Commission on Bonded Labour with judicial and financial powers. But successive governments have failed to do so. Bandhua Mukti Morcha has, therefore, constituted a Citizens’ Commission on Bonded and Child Labour, with eminent persons of political, social and judicial integrity as members. They include former Judges of the Supreme Court of India, eminent artists, journalists, lawyers and social activists.

The practice of bonded labour violates the following International Human Rights Conventions whereas India is a party to all of them and such is legally bound to comply with their terms. They are:

•Convention on the Suppression of Slave Trade and Slavery, 1926;
•Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery Trade, 1956;
•Forced Labour Convention, 1930;
•International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), 1966;
•International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ECOSOC), 1966;
•Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), 1989.

By Cecile Enie