NEW DELHI: After losing her husband to an illness, Jeyanthi (name changed) was forced to step in as the bread earner for her six young children. With no education, work was hard to come by for her, and existence was at bare subsistence levels. Jeyanthi got by, working as a casual labourer; and as her sons became older, they too pitched in. Life was to take a nastier turn for Jeyanthi when her eldest child was to get married. Even the most shoe-string wedding budget worked out to Rs 10,000, money that Jeyanthi didn’t have. She also had no land or asset she could sell, anything of value she had was long gone.
Like many before her in her village, in Andhra Pradesh, Jeyanthi approached the owners of the Sri Lakshmi Modern Rice Mills for a loan and a job to help pay it off. Jeyanthi was made to work long hours under inhuman conditions, she couldn’t go home, her wages were way below the minimum wage rate, and she had to put up with repeated sexual abuse by her employers. Jeyanthi, whose pitiful plight is narrated by the Bandhua 1947 campaign, run by 5 organisations working in this space, is bonded labour – forced or partly forced labour governed by a debtor-creditor agreement. But if you asked the government, there is no such person anymore. Since May, the current UPA government, celebrating its nine years in office, has been putting out a print ad that is headlined: “thanks to MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act), no bonded labour anymore”.
Yet, surveys by civil society organisations and researchers show that even 37 years after Parliament passed the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976 – defining this practice, making it a criminal offence and freeing all bonded labours from their obligations – bonded labour exists in India. And the difference between government and non-government statistics goes back nearly as much.
The government did its one and only survey in 1978, counting 343,000 bonded labourers in 16 states. Earlier that year, in the first-ever survey of bonded labour carried out in India, the Gandhi Peace Foundation and National Labour Institute counted 2.6 million bonded labourers in 10 states. The government stopped counting after that, though it has said that it has rehabilitated 300,000 bonded labourers since the Act came into force. But earlier this year, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimated 11.7 million bonded labourers in India.
Bonded labour has changed over the years. It is no longer limited to the traditional power equation in agriculture, in which the lower castes are expected to perform menial tasks in exchange for guaranteed subsistence. The prevalent system today is one of debt bondage. Poor and without resources, like Jeyanthi, these people take credit from the local landlord or factory owner or contractor.
The loan is akin to an advance on wages, to be paid off by working. Except it would seem the debt is never repaid – and only keeps growing. Piling interest, charges for delayed payments, meagre wages, and fresh loans for subsistence and emergencies means there is no escaping bondage.
Kara, who has spent the last 11 years researching modern slavery in South Asia, puts the weighted average annual profits at $920 per bonded labour, resulting in implied annual profits of $17.6 billion globally.
Kara estimates that when a factory owner acquires a bonded labour for a global weighted average of $200 in South Asia, it can expect a net profit of $2,585 – a compounded annual return on investment of 191% for an average bondage period of 6.3 years.