Bonded labor happens when individuals give themselves into slavery as a security against a loan they took or a debt they inherited from a relative. It can be disguised as an employment agreement, but the worker starts with a debt to repay. As they continue in service, the employers review the terms of the debt that makes clearing of the debt cumbersome and impossible. The laborer remains with no option but to serve the employer for an infinite period. The employers impose illegal contractual stipulations on the workers and deny them the right to negotiate the terms of the contract. The masters design bonded labor in a way that exploits the workers. The process begins with an acquired or inherited debt that the holder cannot pay immediately. As the worker offers labor to offset the debt, the employer adds more expenses that increase the initial debt. Most often, the worker cannot afford basic needs. The employer provides the basic needs such as food and shelter at a higher charge and adds it to the initial debt. The debt accumulates daily to the amounts that become impossible for the worker to repay. Consequently, the worker becomes permanently enslaved and sometimes passes it to the next generation.
The understanding of the long-standing practices of bonded labor relations in India is based on the examination of the forms of labor relations, how they started and relate to inequality and poverty and their effects on policy formulation. The Indian constitution defines forced labor regarding various forms of modern slavery. The examples include Agricultural debt bondage, bonded migrant labor, and child labor.
Bonded laborers face numerous physical and health risks. They work for up to sixteen hours a day. Children perform tasks that are above their level of physical and developmental preparedness. Forms of forced labor are common in many sectors in India due to vast export volumes. An estimated population of 120 million in the country work as bonded laborers. The largest employers of this labor include the agricultural sector, the service industry, and the labor-intensive industries.
The Context of Bonded Labor
In India, bonded labor is common in rural areas where the laborers work in the agricultural industry. The sectors in India where bonded labor is the most prevalent include silk, brick and kiln industries, mining and agriculture. An average of 120 million bonded laborers work in precarious quarries, pick rags in urban streets, toil in fields up to sixteen hours a day or are hidden as domestic servants. The employers pay them little and subject them to mistreatment. The bonded laborers struggle to raise enough resources to provide their basic needs and food for their families. The children subjected to bonded labor do not go to school. They are forced to hard labor such that by the time they attain 40 years, they may be deformed or irrevocably sick.
The agricultural sector employs about 64 percent of bonded laborers. Some of their chores involve tending cattle, working in cane fields, picking tea leaves and working at other vast plantations. Agriculture accounts for about 65 percent of all bonded labor in India (Batstone 45). The brick kilns present a typical working condition of a bonded laborer. The working and living conditions for the laborers are sometimes extremely harsh. Workers usually live within the kilns where there are high levels of hazardous substances such as arsenic, burnt plastic, and dust. The workers are frequently injured at work. Their average working day consists of 15-16 hours (Tucker 25). The accommodation is usually overcrowded, commonly with several families living together in one single room, with outdoor toilets.
Factors behind Bonded Labor
Poverty, Culture and Colonial History
Bonded labor is a long-serving characteristic of the socio-economic culture of India. Poverty is perceived as the main cause of bonded labor. Though, poverty is only one among the many factors that create and sustain the conditions that facilitate bonded labor. Bonded labor is a product of a variety of causes that include caste-based discrimination, colonial history, persistent poverty and social class relations, inequality, insufficiently developed educational system, and the government’s non-commitment to root out the vice. The colonial background of India left a practice of employers denying laborers freedom, which has resulted in debt bondage and child labor. The culture of India also acerbates some forms of forced labor such as child labor, expecting children to contribute to the family’s socioeconomic survival. Other problems include large families, scarcity of natural resources and poor enforcement of labor laws. Families migrate to overpopulated cities where they face the unemployment problem. The despondent family members engage in alcoholism; they disintegrate; children proliferate into streets and eventually become laborers (Batstone 15).
Poor Legal Enforcement and Lack of Political Will
India clearly articulates the domestic legal treatment of individual labor rights. However, lack of proper enforcement portrays the long history of slavery in India. For example, Article 23 of India’s Constitution outlaws human trafficking and forced labor (Tiwari 41). Though, the previous governments lacked the commitment to enforce this constitutional provision. Since the instigation of the act in 1949, the Parliament only approved the legislation banning bonded labor 27 years later. According to the Bonded Labor System Abolition Act of 1976, the state government is responsible for monitoring and enforcing labor violations (Tiwari 36). The Indian government has demonstrated the lack of political will to implement the constitutional directive to ban bonded labor. Several factors are responsible for this non-enforcement. They include caste bias, government apathy, corruption, and unaccountable leaders.
An interpretation provided by India’s Supreme Court states that bonded labor is the payment of wages that are less than the minimum or the market wage. The interpretation fails to cite sufficient human rights violation. The Supreme Court examined the child labor in 1991 and 1997 and emphasized the significant part that poverty plays in bonded labor (Tiwari 45). As a remedy, the court promoted child education. Though, the court demonstrated the unwillingness to ban child labor rightly and argued that it was a judicial body and could not take legislative roles.
The Indian government has failed to establish a relationship between economic development and the widespread human rights violations in the labor force. Instead, the government increased the minimum wage for children, a measure that was perceived as legitimizing the work obligations for children. The Supreme Court also made a decision to establish a welfare program for working children (Hindman 20). These efforts point out the gravity of the problem of bonded labor in India and the urgent need for the political administration to step in and stamp out the vice.
The interpretation of bonded labor as a consequence of poverty and inequality, a cast-based practice and lack of political will to implement labor laws inform policy recommendations. In spite of India being one of the world’s economic powerhouses, it faces the challenge of persistent poverty and ineffective policy design. Economic-based research shows a significant relationship between bonded labor and poverty, low education, and fertility. The government can cut these aspects through appropriate policy recommendation (Tucker 76).
The debate over whether the government should implement the constitutional ban on child labor or maintain the statuesque receives little official policy’s attention. The government should move the country from its traditional practices to an equitable era of respect for the protection of human rights for all citizens. The government can successfully alleviate bonded labor through poverty eradication. Policy makers should formulate appropriate policies on improving access to education and child labor participation. Provision of incentives to discourage families from engaging child labor and relaxing lending laws will also reduce bonded labor.
Policies to support compulsory primary education will help alleviate illiteracy. The policies should make primary education not only a constitutional principle but also a state-enforced fundamental right. The expected change can only be effective if it gains the support of the legal framework and official attitudes. India should formulate policies that combine work and school. Exploitation of the workforce constraints their health, accumulates unskilled, less productive and low-paid workers (Hindman 12). The practice impedes the ability of the country to construct a diverse, highly educated and productive human resource base that can support a competitive economy.
Bonded labor in India is a product of economic, historical, cultural and social factors. The solution to this major violation of human rights and labor laws depends on two aspects. First, the government of India should step up in its commitment to implement the constitutional regulation of forms of forced labor. Second, the society should desist from prejudices based on social classes. India does not subscribe to the practice of social responsibility outside the family loyalties. A section of Hindu beliefs such as pegging the individual’s role and purpose on their societal status inform the attitudes about the social responsibility of the government and society regarding the violation of labor laws. A section of the poor and low-caste population in India is caught in the vicious cycle of poverty and illiteracy. Minors drop out of school, prematurely join the workforce and end up as low-paid or bonded laborers. The population from the lowest social class does not feel the effects of the vibrant and sophisticated India. The India should have the political will to protect the human rights of its labor force.