Slavery refers to a condition where individuals or group of individuals are owned by other people. It is a condition of total submission of the slaves to their owners. The system highlights stratification in society due to financial power, caste, sex, creed and many other factors. Domination and submission are the key factors defining this traditional trade where some people dominate other people making them submissive to them. In this way, slavery represents the highest form of inequality where the slaves are almost without any rights, personal liberty or individuality. One of the prominent British liberal political theorist and sociologist L.T. Hobhouse defined slave in his Morals in Evolution (1906), chapter seven, as “a man whom law and custom regarded as the property of another. In extreme cases he is wholly without rights, a pure chattel; in other cases he may be protected in certain respects, but so may an ox or an ass.”
Chattel slavery is one of the earliest forms of slavery where people were bound to become their master’s personal property forever and whose children and upcoming generation was automatically enslaved. This particular kind of slavery was legalised by the European colonies from the sixteen century onwards. Slavery or slave trade has existed throughout history at different places, times and in different forms. It knew no boundaries. Men, women and even children of all age have been enslaved and classed as a property to be used for personal or professional gains. The aspects of humiliation, violence, use of force to get the work done, unhealthy living, severe conditions of survival, exposure to harsh body activities, forced prostitution are features that define the traditional form of slavery. If slavery was prevalent worldwide from the ancient era of Rome, Greece, Athens then, the abolition of slavery also occurred through various jurisdictions since the early sixth BC. Britain’s abolition of slavery in 1833 with the Slavery Abolition Act was one of the landmark jurisdictions. Another is the General Assembly of the United Nation’s adoption of Universal Declaration of Human Rights on December 10th, 1948, whose Article 4 guarantees that ‘No one shall be held in slavery or servitude, slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all form.’
The above jurisdictions have forbidden people from practising the traditional form of slavery officially and therefore as it will be evident in the coming discussion that slavery has taken new shape to exist in the modern world and bonded labour is one of such form. The United Nation Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery (1956) defines debt bondage as the status or condition arising from a pledge by a debtor of his personal services or those of a person under his control as security for a debt, if the 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 or defined. The National Commission on Labour of India has defined bonded labour as labour which remains in bondage for a specific period for the debt incurred. Similarly, The Commission for Scheduled Caste and Schedule Tribe of India in its 24th report has also explained the term bonded labour as persons who are forced to work for the creditors for the loan incurred either without wage or on nominal wage. All these definitions point towards the key feature of the bonded labour system which is the creditor-debtor relationship.
Furthermore, bondage spills over to other family members of the debtor for an indefinite period until the debt is paid off. Not all bonded labour is forced but in this case there is an element of forced labour because the labour is unwillingly and forcefully taken up by the son or next generation due to heredity until the debt is paid off. Keeping bonded labour is quite advantageous for the employer as they get the concerned work done at a much lower cost than the market value of the labour applied and most importantly they do not have to provide any welfare and security measures to the labour.
India’s social, cultural and economic structure lays the foundation and basis for bonded labour. Caste- system and poverty have always been the base on which bonded labour in India stands firmly. The study has portrayed that most of the bonded labour come from poverty ridden background and socially backward sections of the society. Anti Slavery International, the United Kingdom based international non-government organization in one of its report namely ‘The Enslavement of Dalit and Indigenous Communities in India, Nepal and Pakistan through debt bondage’ published on 2001 estimates that 80% to 98% of the bonded labour are from the Dalit community which is regarded as untouchable. Caste discrimination is one of the important features of debt bondage in South Asia where the upper-caste Hindus dominate the socially backward class, especially Dalits and Sudras. This kind of exploitation functions on the deep underlying inequality and disparity prevalent in Indian history. As an example of caste based bonded labour, the system of “Bartan” in Orissa is a must study where members of barber or washer man communities are employed in customary services by the upper caste families for small remuneration like 15 kg paddy for the whole year. According to this system the 15 kg paddy is provided to each married male of the barber or washer man family by the upper caste family at a particular time of the year and the married man who now would be called ‘sewak’ will have to render services to the upper caste family throughout the year without any remuneration. In case the ‘sewak’ denies the service, his family will be secluded from the village community. The Government of Orissa banned this system in 2011, but some practices related to the system are still prevalent. A very simple understanding of bonded labour goes by the logic that a person works under another person until his debts are paid off but when we study various cases of bonded labour in different parts of India we can say that beside this debtor and creditor relationship there are also other dimensions to it. Not all bonded labour emerges due to the failure of repayment of loan taken by the debtor from the creditor. It also emerges from the caste-based atrocities and disparities as mentioned above in the case of Bartan system of Orissa. Very clearly, in this case the ‘sewak’ does not necessarily lend money from the upper caste family. It is a kind of traditional custom that was being followed.
A 2015 survey conducted by the International Justice Mission (IJM) and National Adivasi Solidarity Council (NASC) states that over four lakh bonded labourers work in 11 industries across 31 districts in Tamil Nadu and around 60% of them were paid below the minimum wages. The leading newspaper Indian Express published an article on February 2018 outlining the accounts of two victims of bonded labour. One of the victims named S Raman realised after 35 years that he was working as a bonded labour under his employer. Raman and his sibling were born and raised in the compound of rice mills where his father and grandfather had worked all their lives. From the age of 12, both the siblings also started working at the rice mill. Raman’s individual liberty and freedom were completely lost to the domination of his employer but he could not leave the job as he had never seen or done any work other than the works of rice mills. He had to take permission from the employer for attending any family ceremony or medical emergency and moreover only one member was allowed to attend, while the rest were supposed to compensate for an advance that was paid to them. Another story of Chinnarasu from Vellore portrays similar picture. He started working at the brick kiln when he was 18 years old for repaying his father’s loan. Attending medical emergencies and family functions required permission from the employer and also meant more advance and more work days for him to repay it. The above two stories display a similar pattern of captivity. In both the cases the labourers could not find another job or leave their present employment because they did not know the outside world. Moreover, paying an advance by the employer is a way of keeping them bonded forever so that they and their next generation keep working to repay the loan that can never be repaid. Raman and Chinnarasu resemble many such labourers who are viciously trapped in the cycle of poverty and hopelessness where they are unaware of their fundamental rights and the constitutional measures that can save them from their situation.
A number of textile industry, brick kilns, regular farming sector and plantation sector employ the largest number of bonded labour in Tamil Nadu. Other than these two bases of bonded labour, there are also other aspects of bonded labour where there are uses of force or migration or trafficking of labour. Trafficking plays a major role in bonded labour where the persons are trafficked by luring them by the amount of money and a good job. They are trafficked to other places, paid less than minimum wages, kept under severe conditions and forced to work according to the terms of the employer. The difference between this kind of bonded labour and the above two is that in this case they become bonded or debtor once they agree to do the job in return of the money they are hardly paid. They may not fall prey to any traditional custom due to caste hierarchy or due to any previous debts but simply due to poverty.
Analysis of the nature of bonded labour and slavery in the above paragraphs showcases the fact that even though there are many differences between bonded labour and slavery one cannot look over some of the similarity between the two. Slavery in the traditional era mostly contained agricultural and domestic slaves and an element of buying and selling of slaves. But today they are much more commercial and profitable in the monetary terms. They are present in different forms in different sectors starting from the construction sector to domestic work to commercial sex to the agricultural sector and other large and small industries. They are well embedded in the globalized economy. Like other dimensions of the modern form of slavery, bonded labour has also been proved as a modern form of slavery or as also called, contemporary forms of slavery (CFS). This makes it necessary to evaluate the restriction of one’s freedom of movement, the relationship one shares with their employer and the right to choose the employer or even know the employer, and finally the degree of control one can keep of his personal belongings in order to understand whether it is a modern form of slavery or not. In both the cases of the bonded labour of Orissa and Tamil Nadu we saw how dominant forces restrict the freedom of a person, demanding his submission indirectly by trapping him in the cycle of debt. Moreover, in the case of Orissa it is quite clear how indirect pressures are put on the poor and minority to become slaves of the majority.
We can thus infer that modern slavery refers to a situation when a person is exploited and cannot protest against the exploitation due to abuse of power, deception, force or threat which is also the case of bonded labour. In 2016, The Global Slavery Index published by The Walk Free Foundations estimated that a total of 40.3 million people are in the form of modern slavery in 167 countries. Regarding India, it estimated that 18.3 million people are in modern slavery. In 2018, Global Slavery Index places India in the 53rd position among 167 countries and research estimated that 6.10% of the population live in modern slavery.
No doubt there are laws like the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976; the Minimum Wages Act, 1948; Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act, 1970 and others in India to prevent bonded labour and protect the fundamental rights and duties of the citizens but more importantly it is necessary to bridge the gap between the enforcement and implementation of such laws for better results. It is the responsibility of the Indian Government and all state governments to take care of proper implementations of such laws. They should conduct proper research in their respective states and especially in bonded labour prone area to come up with more decisive action against this social evil. Role of every citizen including civil society actors is also substantial. They can help not only in spreading awareness of human rights violation at the local, national and international level but can also bring about advocacy by giving the victims a voice to speak up.
Srivastava, R.S. (2015). Bonded Labour in India: Its Incidence and Pattern. (2015). Geneva, International Labour Office.
Finn, D. Bonded Labour in India. Topical Research Digest: Human Rights and Contemporary Slavery. (Pp. 6-9)
Global Slavery Index. (2018). Retrieved From the Global Slavery Index website https://www.globalslaveryindex.org/2018/data/country-data/india/
Ramakrishnan, S. (2018, February 9). Miles to go to break the labour shackles of bonded labour in Tamil Nadu. The New Indian Express, Retrieved from http://www.newindianexpress.com/states/tamil-nadu/2018/feb/09/miles-to-go-to-break-the-shackles-of-bonded-labour-in-tamil-nadu-1770650.html
Palomba, Silvia., Josseph, Sr. Namrata. (2018). What is Bonded Labour. Anti Slavery International. Retrieved from https://www.antislavery.org/slavery-today/bonded-labour/
Modern slavery in India: Cases of Bonded Labour (2012). Franciscans International, Geneva, Switzerland.
Image Credit: The Better India
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