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Forced Labour in India

“Forced Labour in India and their Living Hell!”
Human Rights Defense India organised a symposium on “Forced labour in India”- the voice of whom is unheard and this inhuman practice has continued unabated since times immemorial. Forced labour is a serious and pervasive problem globally. The event was organised on 14th September 2013, at Malviya Smriti Bhawan, New Delhi.

The Panellists were distinguished speakers from their respective fields. Justice Ravindra Bhat, Hon’ble Judge, Delhi High Court, was the Chief Guest and Keynote Speaker for the event. Ms. Bharti Birla (National Project Manager), International Labour Organization, Mr R. Venkatramani, (Sr. Advocate), HR S.A.R Prasanna Chaturvedi Swami, (Chairman) Ramanujan Trust Chennai, Mr. Saji Narayanan (President) Bharat Mazdoor Sangh, were the other eminent panellists.

Every day millions in India wake up to a life of oppression; a life they are not free to leave – the life of forced labour! Forced labour is not only a violation of fundamental rights but is also an offence against human dignity where an individual is compelled to provide labour or service against their wish.

The ILO estimates that at least three out of every 1,000 persons worldwide are suffering in forced labour. In around 10 per cent of cases, the State and their policies are directly responsible for the same. These forced labourers are made to work under conditions which violate recognised labour /human standards.
Forced labour is any work or services which people are forced to do against their will. It is labour performed under duress, usually by relatively large groups of people under the threat of some form of punishment.
This coerced form of manpower takes different forms, including debt bondage, trafficking and other forms of modern slavery. The victims are often the most vulnerable groups such as those who are unorganised labour, members of Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe, women and girls forced into prostitution, migrants trapped in debt bondage and sweatshop, mine or farm workers kept there by illegal means and paid little or nothing.
These victims of modern slavery and their stories remind us of the kind of inhuman treatment we as a society, are capable of extending to the poorest section of society who have nothing to loose.
“Whatever their background, they are the living, breathing reminders that the work to eradicate slavery remains unfinished.”
This inhuman practice of forced labour affects millions of men, women and children around the world and is most frequently found in labour intensive and/or under-regulated industries, the main concentration being labour in the private economy, forced sexual exploitation, in activities such as agriculture, construction, domestic work and manufacturing, exploited by individuals or enterprises and illegal activities like begging, kidnapping, theft etc.

Forced labour has existed throughout history, but it was a particularly prominent feature in regimes of the Nazi Germany and during the rule of Stalin in Soviet Union . Persons opposed to the regime or considered racially or nationally unfit and undesirable were arrested and put for indefinite terms of confinement in concentration camps, remote labour colonies, or industrial camps and forced to work, under harsh conditions. It was also used by Japan during World War II, and by the communist government of China at times from the 1950s to the 1970s. The Khmer Rouge regime of Cambodia made a particularly widespread and brutal use of forced labour. Other notable examples where this takes place are Burma, North Korea and China. However, in the vast majority of cases forced labour is used by private individuals who are seeking to make profits from the exploitation of other people.
Victims of forced labour are frequently from minority or marginalised groups who are vulnerable to slavery practices. Women and girls represent the greater share of forced labour victims. Adults are more affected than children.
Today it is estimated as many as 27 million people around the world are victims of modern slavery, what we sometimes called trafficking in persons. Those victims of modern slavery are women and men, girls and boys, and their stories remind us of the kind of inhuman treatment we are capable of as human beings.
On India, the report states that the country is a source, destination, and transit country for men, women, and children subjected to forced labour and sex trafficking and whose government does not fully comply with the TVPA’s (Trafficking Victims Protection Act) minimum standards, but are making significant efforts to bring themselves into compliance with those standards.
“The forced labour of millions of its citizens constitutes India’s largest trafficking problem; men, women, and children in debt bondage are forced to work in industries such as brick kilns, rice mills, agriculture, and embroidery factories. According to the report, 90% of trafficking in India is internal, and those from India’s most disadvantaged social strata, including the lowest castes, are most vulnerable. It also states that children are subjected to forced labour as factory workers, domestic servants, beggars, agricultural workers, and to a lesser extent, in some areas of rural Uttar Pradesh as carpet weavers.”There were new reports about the continued forced labour of children in hybrid cottonseed plots in Gujarat, and reports that forced labour may be present in the Sumangali Scheme in Tamil Nadu, in which employers pay young women a lump sum to be used for a dowry at the end of a three-year term.”
The Dalit bonded labourers are employed in occupations both in rural and urban India, such as agriculture, forestry, fishing, domestic work, and cleaning. because of their socio-economic status, A report by Anti-Slavery International in 2008, revealed that Dalit bonded labourers are employed to carry out the most physically straining and menial types of work in industries such as silk farms, rice mills, salt pans, fisheries, quarries and mines, tea and spice farming, brick-kilns, textile and domestic work. Manual scavenging and the systems of forced prostitution are the caste-based and bonded occupations in India.
Forced labour in agriculture
Agriculture in India employs far more bonded labourers than all other industries and services in India together. Conditions for bonded agricultural labourers are among the harshest. The work is gruelling, days are extremely long, and payment is nominal and may consist of two sole meals a day with a yearly set of clothing.
Agricultural labour is again linked to caste. Landlords are obviously high caste, small landowners are of lower castes, and the landless and bonded labourers are almost exclusively dalits. According to Human Rights Watch, caste hierarchies are not only confined to land, but also permeate every aspect of village life.
Gender and bonded labour
There are certain occupations, such as domestic work, silk farming, carpet making and weaving which are left exclusively to be performed by women. Young girls are commonly recruited to work in spinning mills in India in return for the cost of their marriage or a dowry payment. The parents often wait several years before receiving the money, which is usually less than initially agreed upon.
The dalit women are at the absolute bottom of the social hierarchy. They face discrimination as Dalits, as poor and as women, making them the most vulnerable group. These women suffer food deprivation and malnutrition to a greater extent than the men. Having so-called feminized duties doesn’t relieve the women of other chores. Being women simply adds to their workload and are discriminated further by their landlords.
Child bonded labour
Children are particularly vulnerable to forced and bonded labour and are found in a number of
occupation including agriculture, brick kilns, stone quarries, carpet weaving, bidi (cigarette) rolling, rearing of silk cocoons, production of silk sarees, production of silver jewellery, gem cutting, diamond cutting, manufacture of leather products, in circuses, fisheries, shops and tailoring establishments, and domestic work
It is estimated that around 4 lakh children work as bonded labour in India’s silk thread and weaving industry in the Karnataka and Varanasi districts alone and the majority of them are Dalits, SC/ST or Muslims. Due to poor and hazardous working conditions, the children suffer health problems and diseases as well as verbal and physical abuse from their employers. They never receive the agreed wages, instead often getting just a small portion of the amount agreed upon.
“Traffickers are criminals. Governments — which alone have the power to punish criminals and provide legal recourse to survivors — cannot waver in their efforts to confront modern slavery. India should increase prosecutions and convictions on all forms of trafficking, including bonded labour. But it also argued that human trafficking takes many guises and it is not just about moving people across borders to trap them in prostitution.
The Constitution of India, under article 23, strongly prohibits the trafficking in human beings, all forms of beggary and other forms of forced labour and makes it a punishable offence. Yet, forced labour remains a widespread problem. Lack of implementation of the legislative frameworks, failure of the authorities to observe the laws, and impunity of perpetrators are the most common obstacles to eliminating forced and bonded labour in India. Because forced labour is hidden, inhumane, widespread, and criminal, sustained and coordinated efforts by law enforcement, social service providers, and the general public are needed to expose and eradicate this illicit trade.

The National Human Rights Commission and many NGO’s are battling the menace of Forced/Bonded labour, but until more people, especially policy makers, professionals, media and responsible sections of the society join the fight, the vision of the Bonded Labour Act will not be realized. The need for legislative intervention to tackle the problem of Forced/ Bonded Labour also needs to be looked into.

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