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Bonded Labour and Slavery

Representing three generations of slavery, Anta (7), Narayani (30) and Tipu (62) felt a piece of paper for the first time in their lives. They had never been in a room with electric lamps and fans nor had they ever tasted a gulab jamun (a common Indian sweet) until then. Looking at the state of several released labourers, I could not help wondering whether we were still living in the medieval age or in a nation advanced in nuclear power and a frontrunner in information technology. I am talking about the sordid plight of 101 bonded labourers, including children, women and men who were speaking to the media after their release from the hilly region of Bhiwani district in Haryana, a northern state of India. What a shame! On one hand we talk of technology and on the other we see people craving for their basic rights and freedom.


“Inspite of all these international and national instruments, slavery in its multiple forms is still existing and mocking at the legal directives. We have encountered such incidents very often and have been able to rescue over 65,000 children and thousands of women and men from such conditions since 1980 in India."

Tipu, a released bonded labourer, recalled that she and her husband were lured from their village to the stone quarries in Rajasthan, a western state of India, about 35 years ago. “All my children and the following generations were born and brought up in bondage. We were sold to several masters in these years and none of them even allowed us to go to the neighbouring villages. We were never given any medicines if we fell sick or got injured. We did not receive money but instead got a handful of flour and salt for our basic survival.”


Twelve-year-old Sawne and his seven year old brother Veeru complained, "We have been beaten up by our master because our parents made an effort to escape. Our hands were tied with a rope and we were locked in a remote room for 12 days." Similarly nine-year-old Manju showed deep scars on her hands and legs and said that she was beaten by the thekedar (building contractor) for being slow in breaking heavy stones.


I always experience conflicting emotions while narrating these incidents of abuse, exploitation and torture that children, men and women have to endure. The dark side brings me shame; however the brighter side holds promises of hope and freedom. The hope grows stronger when I see people like Anta, Narayani and Tipu being excited at the mere touch of a paper for the first time in their lives. What they might be feeling I can’t exactly say - excitement, thrill or just pure shock to sit in an air-conditioned room, while the outside temperature was 45 degree Centigrade. Their joy knew no bounds when they discovered that the rooms lit up just by pressing a button. These simple marvels of science were quite novel to them along with 98 other labourers.


The digital cameramen were clicking pictures of their scars on their bodies received during accidents, injuries and beatings. But I could read the scars on the hearts and souls of these innocent ones. The perpetual torture and abuse have reduced them to non-entities with no perception of freedom, sense of dignity or even a feeling of self-identity. They have been sold and resold by their masters only within a radius of five kilometres. They were completely shattered, broken while being shackled to lifetime servitude of breaking stones.


One would be coming across such stories every now and then. Nothing was new as these women recounted their tales of woe to the media. Narayani was born and brought up within confinement. She married while working and living within the stone quarry, surrounded by hills more than 10 kms away from the road. Anta, a pretty young girl, was born seven years ago. The earlier two generations of Tipu and Narayani were unable to escape the torment of a life of a bonded labourer and experience the sweet taste of freedom.


This group came to know about my organisation, South Asian Coalition on Child Servitude / Bachpan Bachao Andolan (SACCS/BBA) through someone in a nearby village as in the past we had freed several bonded labourers from that area. Two of them succeeded in escaping and reaching our office in Delhi. It took us more than a month in freeing the labourers as the district administration was absolutely callous and had some dubious nexus with the employers. When we first lodged a complaint, the local magistrate denied the presence of any bonded labour in his area. It was only through the intervention of higher authorities that he agreed to accompany our rescue team.


They were liberated late evening through our secret raid. Some may argue that children may be allowed to work if they are living and working in a family environment as was in the case of Anta, Narayani and Tipu living and working together. But at what cost? Is it at the cost of their freedom and liberty? If so, then I will call this nothing else but sheer perpetuation of poverty and illiteracy, ill health and gross violation of human rights!


Slavery had been outlawed in most countries. Liberty was the soul of the universally adopted UN Human Rights Convention. Moreover, several ILO conventions have been adopted to combat forced labour, servitude, serfdom and all forms of slavery. Just to name a few, Convention 29 calls for immediate abolition of forced labour whereas the most recent Convention 182 defines this practice as the worst forms of child labour which has to be eliminated without compromise or delay.


Inspite of all these international and national instruments, slavery in its multiple forms is still existing and mocking at the legal directives. We have encountered such incidents very often and have been able to rescue over 65,000 children and thousands of women and men from such conditions since 1980 in India. But this is not an isolated phenomenon of India. I have met people not only in neighbouring countries of Pakistan and Nepal but also in Kenya, Togo, Brazil, Peru, Mauritania and Benin. Children are forced to live and work in slavery due to parental debt, social or cultural obligations or sometimes the high handedness of employers. The discrimination of caste, creed or gender also plays an important role in its perpetuation. In many cases human trafficking, displacement and migration of people due to ecological disasters, created by mega-development projects, in forests and hills often result in forcing people into slavery. The past movement of the Haitian agricultural workers in the Dominican Republic was a typical example of international labour trafficking.


At about an age when most children start full time schooling, hundreds of thousands of their contemporaries start a lifetime of drudgery in factories and fields, working 12-16 hours daily. They have no holidays and no future to look forward to! Trapped in the vicious cycle of bondage and slavery, they have nowhere to go and are thrust into a life, which reduces them to nothing but robots. The survival instinct then only concentrates on the mechanics of movement and most importantly on primary needs like satisfying their hunger and thirst. In some cases, the only pay is shoddy food, which keeps them alive, and the shelter of their workplace, which is nothing less than a prison!


Be it India’s carpet industries or children sold in Thailand’s sweatshops, such cases are true and existing. In economies like Brazil there are unskilled rural workers who are caught in the cycle of debt bondage, have lost contact with their families and are in continual transit from one exploitative labour situation to another. In Bolivia, current ILO research on indigenous (internal) migrant labour in sugar harvest finds similar pattern.


Mauritania, the Arab of the North purchases the Nomadic Haratin people of the South to tend their fields for them. UNICEF estimated in May 2000 that between 5000 and 10,000 persons had been abducted in Sudan since the 1980s. In Sweden, factors like famine and civil war have driven the Dinha tribes from their land in the South leading to many being sold into slavery. In Peru, some slaves remain so long with certain landowners that they become victims of serfdom. Children are also sold into slavery by poor parents and then exploited for their labour. In Mexico cases of serious abuse especially against indigenous workers in the rural sector has been reported by the National Indigenous Institute (INI). It talks about allegations of coercive form of recruitment known as “enganche” under which indigenous workers are provided with the means of subsistence through a debt that has to be paid off by producing goods and services.


In Bolivia and Paraguay, the shortage of land has led indigenous people to seek work from the ranches or plantations, thereby being caught in a trap of continuing debt. Instances of forced labour have been reported in the agricultural plantations of West Africa. Forced labour involving children is prevalent in Liberia as a result of the civil war. Adults reportedly used abandoned children as a source of captive labour in Liberia. Similarly, in Cote d’Ivore it has been estimated that between 10,000 and 15,000 children from Mali are working on plantations. Benin and Togo are other countries where they have also been detected.


Bonded labourers are routinely threatened with and subjected to physical violence, and are kept under various forms of surveillance, in some cases by armed guards. There are very few cases where chains are actually used (there have been reports in Pakistan). Few years ago, a detachment of the Pakistan Army raided a ‘private jail’ owned by Haji Chulam Kokhar in Tando Allahyar and freed 295 ‘haris’ (ploughmen or male agricultural labourers) held there. There were also reports of women being raped and beaten indiscriminately, and some workers were made to wear fetters when they went to work in the fields so that they would not escape.


In Nepal, debt bondage is rooted in an elaborate caste system, which classifies people according to levels of ‘untouchability’. The problem extends right across the country- from the fertile plains to the Himalayas. Slavery problems for the indigenous people of the Philippines and East Kalimantan (Borneo) in Indonesia arise from logging. As the forests are destroyed, the people have no means of survival and have to rely on the cash economy. The sugar plantations of North East and of Negroes Occidental in the Philippines employ hundreds of thousands in conditions indistinguishable from slavery.


The exploitation of bonded labourers is convenient to many people in the world, particularly the wealthy sections of the society. Such exploitation would continue to persist unless there is a substantial pressure for change. Neither poverty nor the structure of the world’s economy should force them to stay as slaves. It is simply due to the greed of some, and negligence by others.


The fight is definitely tough. But it can be won. Multiple strategies ranging from awareness generation, mass mobilisation, unionisation of unorganised workers, political advocacy, efforts of legal enforcement and action, creation of viable, feasible rehabilitation models, consumers’ boycott campaigns, ensuring quality education for all, corporate social responsibility, coalition building to international initiatives can yield substantial results worldwide and wipe away the blot of exploitation and slavery on humanity.

Kailash Satyarthi... the seeker of truth
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