Focus on ‘Trafficking’ is leading to Denial and Neglect of ‘Bonded Labour’ in India

by Kiran Kamal Prasad, Coordinator of JEEVIKA | GAATW_IS | Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women
Thursday, 26 November 2015 14:07 GMT

A labourer stacks concrete blocks on his head at the construction site of a residential complex on the outskirts of Kolkata, India. REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Until all forms of bonded labour are eradicated in India, we must continue to use the term ‘bonded labour’ and focus efforts on tackling it as a particular and context-specific problem.

According to most recent World Bank figures, in 2014, 21.25% of Indians lived below the international poverty line of less than USD 1.90 per day. Most of those are Dalits and Moolnivasis, and they constitute an overwhelming majority of bonded labourers. In some regions, they make up 90% to 95% of bonded labourers. This sheds light on an important aspect of bonded labour in India: it is not just an issue of poverty, it is a complex social issue and a continuing element of the all-pervasive caste system, rooted in discrimination against minority and indigenous groups.

Historically Dalits performed all forms of menial labour for the so-called ‘higher caste’ families and for the village as a whole, without any wage. Remnants of these forms of caste-based services still exist in many villages throughout India. During the British rule of India, this ‘caste slave labour’ was replaced to a great extent by bonded labour passing through a system of contract labour known then in the British Empire as ‘indentured labour’. Community-owned land was privatised through Land Settlement Acts in the 18th century, and wage labour and cash payments increasingly became the norm. ‘Caste slave labour’ based on ‘patron-client relationships’ started entering the market. Dalit and Moolnivasi populations were moved en masse as indentured labourers from one region in India to another and also moved overseas to other British colonies to work in coffee or tea plantations, in various types of mines, and to lay railway lines. They were forced to sell their labour for wages that were not sufficient to cover even their basic needs, let alone those of their family members. Taking advances with promises to repay with labour, became common practice. The most indigent among the Dalits and Moolnivasis in villages even today survive through bonded labour.

According to the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act 1976 of India, the bonded labour system is a system of forced labour in which a debtor, either for a loan or any other economic consideration, or due to hereditary/social/caste obligation,agrees to render service for no wages or for only a nominal wage. The Indian Supreme Court has clarified that forced labour need not only involve physical or legal compulsion, it is also found in situations where a person agrees to work for nominal wages due to economic hardship. Contrary to popular assumptions, trafficking does not play a significant role in this form of bonded labour. Bonded labourers are not trafficked by an agent to a distant place; very often it is the bonded labourers themselves, and, in cases of children, their guardians, who go in search of masters, very often in their own villages or at the furthest in neighbouring villages. The trafficking definition applies to very few bonded labour cases, and usually, when applicable, the case involves migration.

Yet, internationally, ‘trafficking in persons’ is increasingly used as an overarching term for all forms of labour exploitation.

Bonded labour is a reality encountered by all those working with Dalits and Moolnivasis, as well as those with a focus on forced labour, slavery-like practices and trafficking in persons. But advocates face stiff resistance from all sections of the government both to recognising the practice as a problem and to committing to its eradication. A deep culture of denial of bonded labour is the norm in all branches of governance, be it legislative, executive, or judiciary, or levels of governance, from national to gram panchayat (a cluster of villages). In spite of the strong provisions in the Indian Constitution and legislation, bonded labour is largely dismissed as a phenomenon of the distant past, like slavery, and abolished already by legislation. Yet ample evidence testifies to its continuing existence. While the term ‘trafficking in persons’ has gained traction across India, the focus on human trafficking arguably feeds this culture of denial as regards bonded labour, leading to a situation where the reality of bonded labour can be completely ignored under the pretext that the practice in villages does not constitute trafficking in persons.

Until all forms of bonded labour are eradicated in India, we must continue to use the term ‘bonded labour’ and focus efforts on tackling it as a particular and context-specific problem.

 A longer version of this article first appeared in The Anti-Trafficking Review, Issue 5.

Kiran Kamal Prasad is the Coordinator of JEEVIKA—Bonded Labour Liberation Front in Karnataka, India. He has been working with Dalits since 1985 and took up research on bonded labour in 1988 in a taluk (sub-district) of Bangalore. JEEVIKA was launched in 1993 to extend the movement to the entire state. E-mail: jeevika90@gmail.com