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Haliya Kamaiya - South Asian Bonded Labour System

Haliya Kamaiya - South Asian Bonded Labour System

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It took bonded labourers themselves to raise a hue and cry over the bonded system, and finally forced the governments to introduce various prohibitory laws. A genuine rehabilitation still remains an issue. Although there are many NGOs today placing euphoria on debt bondage, critics argue, their effectiveness remains limited as long as the rules remain externally imposed. It would be tempting suggest that the governments’ commitment, social awareness campaign, and a change of attitudes among employers toward bonded labourers (not just fearing for breaking the law) would allow bonded labourers to live a ‘normal’ life. These changes are made difficult by labour market imperfections and overall inequality in the South Asian societies. So far millions of people surviving in bondage have received a limited benefit from national and international legislations or rehabilitation programs.
It took bonded labourers themselves to raise a hue and cry over the bonded system, and finally forced the governments to introduce various prohibitory laws. A genuine rehabilitation still remains an issue. Although there are many NGOs today placing euphoria on debt bondage, critics argue, their effectiveness remains limited as long as the rules remain externally imposed. It would be tempting suggest that the governments’ commitment, social awareness campaign, and a change of attitudes among employers toward bonded labourers (not just fearing for breaking the law) would allow bonded labourers to live a ‘normal’ life. These changes are made difficult by labour market imperfections and overall inequality in the South Asian societies. So far millions of people surviving in bondage have received a limited benefit from national and international legislations or rehabilitation programs.

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06/12/2012

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South Asian Bonded Labour System: AComparative Perspective on InstitutionalArrangements
(DRAFT REPORT, NOT FOR CITATION WITHOUT THE PERMISSION FROMTHE AUTHOR)B R GIRI2004
AbstractApart from signing and ratifying various United Nations and International Labour Organisation Conventions, South Asian governments have also introduced domesticlaws banning bonded labour practices. However, a variety of labour arrangementsfrom freedom to exploitation to outright bondage have remained the order of the day.Even the young children of bonded labourers are often used as collateral for loanstaken by their parents or are still required to work for the same employers as their  parents under exploitative sharecropping arrangements. This essay reviews the bonded labour situation in South Asia, and argues that an anti-bondage law in itself does little to solve bonded labour practice as long as sociocultural andeconomic-political opportunities remain unfavourable to the most vulnerable sectionsof the society.
 
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IntroductionDespite prohibition imposed by several international agreements, the practices of human servitude in the forms of child labour, bonded labour, servile marriage, humantrafficking as well as the exploitation of domestic and migrant labour continues toexist (Bales 2004: 19-22). Among others, debt bondage or labour bondedness isbelieved to the least known and most widely used method of enslaving peopleworldwide. Bonded labour or debt bondage happens when people give themselvesinto ‘slavery’ as security against a loan or when they inherit a debt from their relatives.In the mid-1990s, the UN Working Group on Contemporary Forms of Slaveryestimated that some 20 million people are still held in debt bondage around the world(ASI 2001, Upadhyaya 2004: 118). According to a recent study, Bangladesh, India,Nepal and Pakistan have some 15 to 20 million bonded labourers out of about 27million ‘disposable people’ or ‘contemporary slaves’ worldwide (Bales 2004: 8-10)In 1996, the Human Rights Watch claimed that nearly 40 million Indian people arebonded whereas the government of India identified only 280,340 in 1999. Likewise,Pakistani government reported that the total number of bonded workers between5,000 and 7,000 but according to the Bonded Labour Liberation Front of Pakistan,there are some 20 million of them. In 1995, the government of Nepal announcedstatistics concerning
kamaiya
practice, which recorded 15,152 bonded familiesconsisting of 83,375 individuals in the five (out of 75) western Tarai (or flat-plain)districts of Banke, Bardiya, Dang, Kailali and Kanchanpur. However, NGOs claimthe numbers to be more than 40,000 families with some 200,000 individuals (CWIN2003). Moreover, Nepal is alleged to have a further two million landless agriculturalworkers, who are at risk of falling into bonded labour (Robertson and Mishra 1997).As elaborated later, these statistics can under or over estimate the extent of bondedlabour problem as it depends, for instance, on the methods of obtaining them. Thus, aresearcher should be wary about taking child labour figures at face value. Evenhaving said this, it is still useful to refer to the numbers as an indication of theproblem because several million South Asian people, including children and women,are working in slave-like conditions, often not knowing when their little known debtwill finally be considered paid or inherited by the following generations. South Asianormally refe
rs to South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC)
 countries comprising of Bhutan, Bangladesh, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and SriLanka, but Afghanistan is also included by researchers. This essay primarily focuseson Bangladesh, India and Nepal Pakistan, where 15 to 20 million bonded labourers
 
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reported to be found.
Most reports regarding bonded system in South Asia have been carried out by journalists and various NGO activists, and their focus is largely on ‘the exposition anddenouncement of specific human rights violations’ (Bales 2004: 265). For pro-active NGOs, the practice of bonded labour is an inhuman
modus operandi
whereby adultsand children work for the landlords in conditions of servitude to pay off an individualor family debt. It is, they claim, ‘nothing other than a residue of the medieval slaverysystem, an intolerable characteristic and a major infringement of the [South Asia’s]labour market’ (Jha 1999: 33-34). It is argued that bonded labour in India, Nepal andPakistan is localised within the ‘caste’ hierarchy or similar forms of socialstratification in spite of existing several domestic laws that ‘prohibit all types of slave-like practices.’ As such, the system of bondage remains clandestine in nature,creating a considerable controversy regarding the number of people who are actually‘enslaved.’ The unenforceability of national laws and lack of public awareness,combined with people’s appalling level of poverty and daily-life vulnerabilities are blamed for holding people in bondage.It needs to be made clear that human rights organisations and NGO activists use theterm ‘slavery’ or modern-day-slaves, but South Asian governments and United Nations refer to it as debt bondage or bonded labour. The former’s view is based onthe fact that people submit themselves in for loan, which is the first stage in a patternof abuse that falls under the definition of slavery in the International SlaveryConvention of 1926 and the Supplementary Convention of 1956, but the latter arguethat is feudal form of labour resulted party from social exclusion but mostly fromlabour market imperfection, and therefore not akin to slavery. This essay uses termslike bonded labour, debt bondage, and bondedness in the same way as South Asiangovernments and the United Nations do.
This essay starts with various definitions on bonded labour system, presents aworking definition, geographic concentration of debt bondage, and national andinternational laws that prohibit people’s bondage. A conclusion is being reached afterdescribing the recent efforts of South Asian governments and NGOs to free theindebted people, and the labour market situation in the region. A major contributionof the essay is that it focuses on South Asia where largest bulk of bonded labourersare said to exist, which is rarely heard and understood by people worldwide. At thesame time, the issue of bondedness is a complex historical as much as socioculturaland economic political phenomenon, which this short account is unable to capture indetails.

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