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Workers' Rights in a Global Economy

11 Apr 2016, 08:43 AM

Bonded Labour in India: Peer Review Assignment

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The abolition and prevention of forced labour is one of the fundamental international labour standards protected by the conventions of the International Labour Organisation (ILO). Bonded labour- or debt bondage- a form of forced labour, is widely prevalent in South Asia, particularly in India. It has been identified as a “modern form of slavery” is when people offer their labour in return for a loan. Generally, the creditor has complete physical control over the debtor. Though, the debtor is theoretically supposed to work until his or her loan is paid off, the debtors are often illiterate and the creditors generally set exorbitant interest rates and pay well under the minimum wages resulting in bondage that lasts a lifetime, and often across generations. Bondage is often accompanied by long term physical, mental and sexual violence. The labourers are often confined to the premises and forced to work anywhere between 12 and 20 hours a day. In India, bonded labour is prevalent across sectors- from construction, mines and brick kilns to tea estates, carpet weaving and rose farms.
The primary convention regarding forced labour, ratified by India in 1958, is Convention 29: Forced Labour Convention. The right against forced labour is a Fundamental Right enshrined in Article 23 of the Constitution of India. The Parliament passed a specific legislation, the Bonded Labour System (Abolition), Act, 1976 which outlaws and penalises bonded labour only three decades after independence. However, the law and the penalties it prescribes have been criticised by even the ILO as lacking the necessary gumption to have a significant effect on the overall situation. More troubling is the nearly complete ineffectiveness in its implementation. The judiciary has attempted to fill the lacunae in law. In the 1984 case Bandhua Mukti Morcha v Union of India where a case of large scale bonded labour in quarries was brought before the Supreme Court, the Court took unprecedented steps such as the institution of continued judicial monitoring and review of the ground reality.

In 2014, Siddarth Karra, an expert on modern forms of slavery highlighted the incidence of use of children in bonded labour in the carpet weaving industry in India. Children who were barely 10 were forced to work sixteen hours a day to hand weave delicate patterns that adults with larger hands would be unable to produce. They are paid well below the minimum wage, if they are paid at all. They are generally sold into bondage by their parents out of desperation. Most of these carpets are headed for exports to Western markets.
Tea plantations are infamous for employing bonded labour. In the tea plantations of Assam, an unsettling percentage of labourers can trace their lineage back to people who were brought in bondage to the estate prior to Indian Independence. They work for approximately 100 INR per day, which is significantly below the minimum wage. They are paid for their day’s labour according to the weight of the leaves gathered that day. The weighing machines used are clearly rigged. A significant number of the female workers on the tea estate face regular sexual abuse.
The reasons given in studies and by the government for the lack of success in eradication of bonded labour has been its entrenched “traditional” nature. However, the barbaric nature of this practice cannot be justified on any grounds. The Indian State and civil society must take concrete co-ordinated steps to bring an end to slavery in all forms.

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