Bonded Labour in South Asia

A BLOG POST BY SIDDHARTH KARA  A bonded labourer named Sanjay in Bihar, India, once described to me how he took a loan of approximately $44 from the local landowner to provide medicines to his ailing father. Nine years later, Sanjay told me, “The landowner sent us for work at his brick kiln to repay this loan. We also do carpet weaving in the rainy season. My entire f amily works for the landowner, but I am still in debt.”

When I met him, Sanjay had little sense of his level of debt to the landlord. Since his initial loan, he had taken numerous additional loans for basic subsistence, medicines, and repairs to his hut. He is also charged interest that often exceeds 100% per year. Destitute and isolated, Sanjay cannot access any other source of credit. As a result, he, his wife, and two sons have been physically coerced to work fifteen or more hours a day under very dangerous conditions for more than nine years, with barely enough food and water to survive.

Sanjay’s story is exemplary of the millions of bonded labourers across South Asia. Even though bonded labour is prohibited in most of South Asia, it remains an ever-evolving mode of slave-like exploitation that persists in broad daylight due to several forces, including poverty, absence of alternative credit sources, a lack of justice and rule of law, and social acceptance of the exploitation of minority castes and ethnicities.

At present, I estimate that there are approximately 17 to 20 million debt bondage slaves in South Asia. This makes bonded labour the most expansive form of slavery in the world today, with approximately six out of ten slaves being bonded labourers. The exploitation of these men, women, and children is not isolated to South Asia, as the products of their exploitation -- rice, tea, fish and shrimp, carpets, cigarettes, fireworks, minerals and stones, gems, and apparel -- are consumed around the world.

Bonded labour is a relic of history that should have long ago been eliminated from South Asia, but greed, corruption, and government ineffectiveness allow this caustic mode of exploitation to persist well into modern times. In order to ensure basic human rights and guarantee untainted global supply chains, the forces that promote bonded labour must be tackled immediately.

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