What is the bonded labour system? 

Bonded labour is a form of modern slavery that affects well over one crore people in India. A victim is under some sort of obligation – it could be financial, economic, inherited, caste or another social obligation – as a result of which, he is forced to work for an owner who may pay him far below the minimum wage, if he is paid anything at all. Bonded labourers are usually ill-treated, often not allowed to leave the worksite, visit their relatives or work elsewhere or sell their goods.

Is bonded labour the same as debt bondage?

No. Debt bondage is one form of bonded labour, which includes an advance or loan given to the labourer. There are other forms of bonded labour, which involve other kinds of obligations.

How widespread is the problem of bonded labour?

There is very little accurate research on the numbers of bonded labourers in India. However, the most recent study comes from Harvard University’s Siddharth Kara, who says there are well over one crore bonded labourers in India, in his book ‘Bonded Labour: Tackling the System of Slavery in South Asia’ (2012). According to the International Labour Organisation, there are more than two crore victims of forced labour – which includes bonded labour – in South Asia. Over half of them are women and girls.

According to the Ministry of Labour, more than 85 per cent of bonded labourers are from Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe (SC & ST) communities.

What are some of the forms that bonded labour can take?

Caste-based bondage: Millions of people are bonded for generations to their owners simply because they were born into a particular caste. They are forced to work for feudal landlords in agricultural communities, or to become a barber or washerman  providing free service to the upper castes.

Debt bondage or other economic obligations: A victim takes an advance – usually because of desperate financial circumstances – and is then forced to work in a never-ending attempt to work off the debt. No proper records are kept, and the loan amount usually increases as time goes on. In some instances, young girls from poor families are lured into bondage by the unfulfilled promise of a dowry to help them get married.

Inherited bondage: Sometimes, a victim is forced to work due to an advance taken by his father or even grandfather; the inherited debt can keep multiple generations in bondage.

Migrant bonded labour: This is an increasingly common form of bonded labour, with families -- and even entire villages -- from impoverished areas often travelling hundreds of kilometres to work, lured by advances from a contractor or middleman. This is a form of human trafficking.

If labourers willingly take the advance, how can they be considered bonded?

Even if an advance is taken willingly, labourers should be given minimum pay, and allowed to move around or work anywhere in an effort to pay it off. If they are being deprived of these rights, then they are bonded labourers under the law. In many cases, advances are actually used to trick the unsuspecting victim into slavery.

The fact also remains that the poverty and vulnerability of these labourers often leaves them with no choice but to take an advance for basic survival needs.

In a Supreme Court judgement, Justice P.N. Bhagwati pointed out that: “Where a person is suffering from hunger or starvation, when he has no resources at all to fight disease or to feed his wife and children or even to hide their nakedness, where utter grinding poverty has broken his back and reduced him to a state of helplessness and despair and where no other employment is available to alleviate the rigour of his poverty, he would have no choice but to accept any work that comes his way, even if the remuneration offered to him is less than the minimum wage. He would be in no position to bargain with the employer; he would have to accept what is offered to him. And in doing so he would be acting not as a free agent with a choice between alternatives but under the compulsion of economic circumstances and the labour or service provided by him would be clearly ‘forced labour’.”

Are walls or other physical restraints required for someone to be a bonded labourer?

No. These are not necessary for a person to be considered a bonded labourer. Labourers  typically live in fear of violence every day, facing extreme threats, coercion and intimidation in the form of physical, verbal or sexual abuse by owners. When they attempt to escape, owners often track them down, or hold other family members hostage.

Supreme Court Justice P.N. Bhagwati went even further saying that, apart from physical force or threats, “even compulsion arising from hunger and poverty or… any factor which deprives a person of a choice of alternatives and compels him to adopt one particular course of action may properly be regarded as ‘force’.”

Is bonded labour a labour issue or a human rights issue?

The bonded labour system can result in a variety of human rights abuses such as physical brutality, sexual violence and mental abuse. However, it must be remembered that the deprivation of basic freedoms makes all forms of bonded labour a serious violation of human rights.

Is bonded labour the same as child labour?

No. However, bonded labour is a crime trapping whole families, sometimes multiple generations. Children in these families are often the worst affected.

Is there a law against bonded labour?

Yes. Bonded labour is a violation of the fundamental right against exploitation guaranteed in the Constitution of India itself. Article 23 prohibits traffic in human beings and forced labour, making it a punishable offence. In 1976, Parliament enacted the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, which designates and empowers government officials to identify, release and rehabilitate bonded labourers. It also authorises the prosecution and punishment of perpetrators.

What other laws does bonded labour violate?

Bonded labour also violates the sections of the Indian Penal Code dealing with slavery, unlawful compulsory labour and wrongful confinement offences. Since bonded labourers are often from the SC or ST communities, it may also violate relevant sections of the SC and ST Act (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989.

Perpetrators of bonded labour will often offend against their victims in other ways. A bonded labour system of coercion and control is unfortunately conducive to other abuses, including physical assaults, sexual abuse, extortion, abduction, child abuse and criminal intimidation. While these abuses occur within a bonded labour system, they are separate and distinct criminal acts, and separate charges should be laid accordingly. There is no legal bar to multiple charges being laid against an accused under various statutes, provided that the offences are each made up of different elements.

What happens to bonded labourers after they are released from the facilities where they were held?

The district magistrate must issue a release certificate to each victim, cancelling all their debts and obligations, giving them a legal identity as released bonded labourers, entitling them to a number of rehabilitative measures, and paving the way for penal action against perpetrators.

What are the benefits that released bonded labourers are entitled to?

The district administration must release a minimum sum of Rs. 20,000 to cover basic needs as they begin to rebuild their lives. Under various government schemes, released bonded labourers are also entitled to a home, a piece of land, food security, health insurance and a job. However, since many released bonded labourers do not actually receive many of these benefits, they are at risk of falling back into the clutches of bondage.

What is the punishment for bonded labour crime under the BLSA?

The maximum punishment for a perpetrator convicted of the bonded labour crime under the BLSA is imprisonment for three years and a fine of Rs. 2,000. However, convictions are infrequent and the leniency of sentencing does little to deter perpetrators from continuing to exploit bonded labour.

Who is responsible to eradicate BL and ensure it stays eradicated?

The Act mandates that the State government to empower the District Magistrate (Section 10) to implement the provisions of the Act. The Act also requires the constitution of Vigilance Committees to advise the District Magistrate and ensure implementation (Section 13).

At the national level, the Ministry of Labour & Employment is charged with the monitoring, ensuring reporting, releasing funds for identification and rehabilitation activities to ensure proper implementation of the BLSA and Rules.



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