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Wednesday, September 27, 2023

India’s Bonded Labour conundrum


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According to the Global Slavery Index 2018, 10 countries with the largest estimated absolute numbers of people in modern slavery include some of the world’s most populous were these 10 countries – India, China, Pakistan, North Korea, Nigeria, Iran, Indonesia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Russia, and the Philippines – account for 60 percent of people living in modern slavery.

The Global Slavery Index 2018 indicated that there are around 8 million people living in modern slavery in India.

The US Department of State ‘2022 Trafficking in Persons’ Report stated that over the past five years, human traffickers exploit domestic and foreign victims in India and traffickers exploit victims from India abroad.

Internal forced labour constitutes India’s largest trafficking problem; traffickers use debt-based coercion (bonded labour) to compel men, women, and children to work in agriculture, brick kilns, rice mills, embroidery and textile factories, and stone quarries.

Traffickers promise large advances to manipulate workers into accepting low-paying jobs, where traffickers then add exorbitant interest rates; create new deductions for items such as lodging, health care, or wage slips; or fabricate the amount of debt, which they use to coerce workers into continuing to work for little or no pay.

One study, according to the US report estimated the presence of at least eight million trafficking victims in India, the majority of whom are bonded laborers. Intergenerational bonded labour continued, whereby traffickers transfer the outstanding debts of deceased workers to their parents, siblings, or children. Traffickers often target those from the most disadvantaged social strata. The scheduled castes and scheduled tribes as well as the children of migrant laborers are particularly vulnerable to trafficking and bonded labour.

The increase in economic insecurity and unemployment due to the pandemic placed substantial burdens on economically vulnerable communities in meeting daily food and shelter requirements, thereby increasing their vulnerability to trafficking. The absence of work opportunities in rural areas forced some laborers to work for less than 50 percent of the minimum wage.

The US Report further revealed that women and children reportedly experienced re-trafficking in some jurisdictions with increased frequency due to economic hardship. Traffickers offered cash advances to attract workers who were unemployed, thus increasing the likelihood of debt bondage among economically vulnerable groups.

Civil society reported that the children of economically distressed families faced increased risk of labour or sex trafficking largely due to pandemic-related loss of parental employment and school closures. Economic hardship also resulted in more child marriages; Telangana reported a 27 percent increase in cases from April 2020 to March 2021 compared to the previous year.

Traffickers force entire families into work in brick kilns, including children younger than 6 years old. In a 2017 study of brick kiln workers in Rajasthan state, researchers found more than 40 percent of seasonal workers from Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Bihar, and Rajasthan states owed manipulated debts to kiln owners that were greater than the amount workers earned over the entire season. In some states, the exploitative contractors that trap workers in bonded labour are local government officials or politically influential. Some traffickers severely abused bonded laborers, including those who asked for their rightful wages, and some bonded laborers died under traffickers’ control.

Traffickers exploit adults and children, including entire families, into bonded labour in carpet production and textiles in Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh states, sometimes requiring adults to leave children behind as collateral when they leave the premises for any reason. Children become trapped in debt bondage while working alongside their families in agriculture, cotton farms, home-based embroidery businesses, mica mining, and roadside restaurants.

Child bonded laborers also work in the brick kilns of Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, and elsewhere. State officials observed that human trafficking increased significantly in Assam due to heightened economic vulnerability, and cases of missing children in the tea garden areas nearly doubled.

According to the Global Slavery Index 2018, the brick industry in India is huge with more than 150,000 brick production units in the country employing an estimated 10 million workers and contributing £3bn (USD 4.2bn113) to the Indian economy annually. During the six-month production season, tens of thousands of families come to work in the brick kilns in Andhra Pradesh.

The industry is known to rely on entire families working in bonded labour, with minimum pay and few or no health and safety regulations. Families work 12- to 18-hour days under squalid conditions, including severe abuses. The Andhra Pradesh state labour commissioner has denied bonded labour exists.

In 2015, the International Justice Mission (IJM) reportedly tipped off officials to a bondage situation in a brick kiln in Thiruvallur district, which led to the rescue of 333 bonded labourers, including 75 children. The workers each had to pay recruitment fees and were promised 300 rupees (USD 4.6117) a day but were only paid 200 rupees (USD3118) a week. In 2017, a brick kiln owner who was accused of trapping and abusing 12 labourers was found guilty under India’s Bonded Labour System Abolition Act (1976) and Section 370 of the penal code covering human trafficking.

A study found that 37 percent of workers across 50 tea estates in Assam had daily expenditures that exceeded their daily income, making workers extremely vulnerable to debt-based coercion. In some cases, the “Provident Funds” or Sumangali scheme in which employers pay young women a lump sum for education or a dowry at the end of multi-year labour contracts, often in Tamil Nadu’s spinning mill industry, may amount to bonded labour, and some employers subject these women to sex trafficking.

A 2016 qualitative research report details the grievances of young women under the Sumangali or “camp labour” schemes, whereby workers are housed in company-owned hostels with restricted freedom of movement. This approach is used to ensure the women are available to work on call and are unable to unionise. A portion of their pay is withheld until completion of their fixed-term contracts. Women from lower castes in remote regions are specifically targeted during recruitment. Other research based on interviews with more than 150 girls and young women on annual leave from mills in Tamil Nadu in 2013 concluded that girls and young women are lured to the Tamil Nadu spinning industry by false promises and are forced to work under appalling conditions. It was mentioned that their freedom of movement is restricted, mobile phones are not allowed, and workers are effectively locked up in the mills. They work 60 hours per week year-round and cannot refuse

Traffickers exploit children as young as eight in forced labour in agriculture (coconut, eucalyptus, ginger, and sugarcane); construction; domestic service; garment, steel, and textile industries (tanneries, bangle, and sari factories); begging; criminality; food-processing factories (biscuits, bread-making, meat-packing, and pickling); floriculture; cotton; ship breaking; and manufacturing (wire and glass).

According to the US Department of State report, the Government of India does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking but is making significant efforts to do so. These efforts included identifying more trafficking victims, primarily victims of bonded and forced labour.

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