One of the most horrific forms of capitalist exploitation today is to be found in South Asia: bonded labor. This contemporary form of slavery, despite being illegal, is practiced in all sectors of South Asian economies, mainly in India, Nepal and Pakistan and exists both as a rural and urban phenomenon.
Bonded labor is “the status or condition arising from a pledge by a debtor of his personal services or those of a person under his control as security for a debt, if the value of those services as reasonably assessed is not applied towards the liquidation of the debt or the length and nature of those services are not respectively limited and defined”. This condition is perpetuated by the fact wages paid to bonded laborers barely pay for the basic necessities for survival which, coupled with spiralling debts, trap workers in a superexploitative contractual (and even non-contractual) arrangements which can extend for long periods of time and even for multiple generations. There are many forms this exploitation can take, such as the bondage of tenants to landowners in what is portrayed as legal land lending contracts, seasonal bonded labor or the bondage of women and children.
The International Labour Organization (ILO)’s estimate for forced laborers in the world today is 20.9 million people. To go in further detail:
- 18.7 million (90%) people are in forced labor in the private sector. Of these, 4.5 million (22%) are in forced sexual exploitation, and 14.2 million (68%) in forced labor in activities such as agriculture, construction, domestic work and manufacturing.
- Women and girls represent the greater share of forced labor victims 11.4 million (55%), as compared to 9.5 million (45%) men and boys.
- Adults are more affected than children 74% (15.4 million) of victims fall in the age group of 18 years and above, whereas children are 26% of the total (or 5.5 million child victims).
- 2.2 million (10%) work in state-imposed forms of forced labor, for example in prisons under conditions which violate ILO standards, or in work imposed by the state military or by rebel armed forces.
South Asia is believed to have 9.5 million people in forced labor, the majority of who are in debt bondage. These statistics are either ignored or downplayed by government authorities in Nepal, Pakistan and India, making these governments complicit with the business, intentionally or not.
Like other types of labor in capitalism, bonded labor is continuously reinventing itself. While generational bonded labor has decreased with time, new forms of bonded labor are emerging and the number of chronically poor and landless workers that enter debt bondage is increasing. Being landless in countries where half or more of the population is employed in agriculture makes people vulnerable to debt bondage as they have to meet their survival needs.
Recently, as agriculture in South Asia undertook structural change, moving to cash-cropping for example, some impacts were felt on bonded labor itself. With the decline in the agricultural labor force as a result of mechanization, agricultural work has become more and more seasonal. This puts strains on the population working in the primary sector as they have to take advances on their remuneration, which then requires them to work the full season to receive the rest.
Wages for bonded labor are extremely low and the debt often takes whole families to repay, often with children working for free. In India, bonded labor is practiced in agriculture, silk farms and industries, rice mills, salt pans, fisheries, quarries and mines, forest work, match and firework industries, tea and cardamom farming, brick-kilns, shrimp farming, bidi, cigarette industry, domestic work, and textiles. Workers involved in power and handlooms, artificial gems work, shrimp farms, and weaving factories are particularly vulnerable to in bondage.
In Pakistan, it is widespread in agriculture, brick kiln work, cotton-seed production, and tanning, mines and carpet industries. A research by PILER in 2000 estimated that the total number of sharecroppers in debt bondage across the whole of Pakistan was over 1.8 million people, while a 2004 survey of brick kilns in Punjab, Pakistan, by the Federal Bureau of Statistics found that nearly 90 per cent of brick kilns workers were bonded. Another research carried out by PILER in Pakistan indicates that up to 1 million brick kiln workers in Pakistan are bonded. In Nepal it is found in agriculture, brick-kilns, and domestic work. The practice is also found in sweatshops of all three countries.
Indeed, the bourgeois state has introduced laws against bonded labor, but this change in form is not accompanied by a change in content. Laws only modify the superficial and nominal forms of bonded labor, but the coercion through indebtedness survives in more subtle forms, such as contracts modified so as to appear as law conforming. An example of this is the substitution of the Kamaiya system in Nepal where bonded workers would pay off loans, which is now illegal, into the Zirayat system, which is share-cropping under which produce is divided between landlords and tenants, and the latter are required to till additional land without being paid a wage.
Kamaiya has evolved even more in India, where workers who appear to be independent tenants continue to be bonded laborers. Tenants borrow money from their landlord for seeds, fertilizers and other farming costs. These costs add to the share that goes to the landowners effectively rendering the tenants’ return insufficient for them to repay the loan, thus bonding them to the landowners. Factors such as the informality of contracts, the illiteracy of those that sign them and subsistence wages enable employers to circumvent existing labor laws binding workers into persistent or repeated debt bondage where at the end of a contract a worker may find that he owes a debt to an employer with whom he has then no option but to enter into a new contract to pay off that debt.
Historically, the work contract established between the employer and head of household required all members of laborers’ families to work for the employers, and individual family members did not need to establish such contracts with the employers. Women and girls are now, however, increasingly bonded in their own right. They are often bonded in domestic work, fish-processing, silk farming, bangle production, carpet making, and weaving industries. Women, in equal numbers to men, also work in quarries. There is also evidence that male emigration from one state of India to another has also pushed women into bondage in commercial agriculture. In Nepal, women under the Haliya system, another bonded labor practice in agriculture in the western hills of the country, often work for moneylender landlords, while their husbands work seasonally in India. The phenomenon of women increasingly being bonded in their own right is commonly referred to as ‘feminization of bonded labor’. Recent research also highlights relatively new kinds of bondage, including:
• Girls recruited in spinning mills in India for bonded work in return for their marriage cost. The girls, known as Sumangali, work up to three years before their parents are paid for their labor.
• Young boys trafficked from Bihar, West Bengal and neighbouring Nepal, are bonded in zardozi embroidery units in Delhi.
• Increased numbers of children in bondage in domestic work.
• The bonding of multiple wives into prostitution among the Koltas, the lowest caste in the region.
The main cause behind bonded labor, be it urban or rural, is the chronic poverty of South Asia, a result of the imperialist pillaging of the sub-continent in the past hundreds of years. Low incomes, deprivation of skills, education and access to health care, lack of property and social vulnerability caused by many factors are all factors that play into bonded labor. Very often, detrimental loan advances are concealed under contracts of long-term employment dictated by the employers, who have the economic advantage of owning property. The reserve army of the unemployed also plays its role, scaring workers into the acceptance of such contracts against their will. Needless to say, many workers’ wages are far below the legal minimum and barely meet subsistence wages. Coupled with their lack of what is normally called “social capital”, that is, social contacts and so on, this situation gives no opportunities to move out of poverty, but at the same time creates profitable opportunities for usurers and other capitalists. As they say, for every loss there’s a gain.
In South Asia, chronic poverty manifests as a mostly rural condition. Coincidentally, rural areas are where most of the South Asian population lives. The choices that rural life imposes on families in the subcontinent are very limited, and most are dependent on agriculture. It’s for this reason that landless workers are forced into seasonal agricultural production which can easily lead to debt bondage, a phenomenon that repeats itself since the advent of Indian independence from the British Empire, where the vast majority of agricultural laborers were not included in land distribution and wage labor became their only means of subsistence. Since then, the only beneficial land reforms have been practiced either by the Naxalites in their controlled areas, or by the government to pacify an outraged population.
This form of accumulation by dispossession is in effect, as Karl Marx reminds us, “the dissolution of private property based on the labor of its owner. Self-earned private property, that is based, so to say, on the fusing together of the isolated, independent laboring-individual with the conditions of his labor, is supplanted by capitalistic private property, which rests on exploitation of the nominally free labor of others, i.e., on wage-labor.”
On top of class-related chronic poverty, we see episodes of structural racism inducing chronic poverty, especially among marginalized groups such as the Dalits and indigenous peoples. The remnants of the caste system and of tribal identities make these groups more vulnerable to poverty and deprivation and, as a consequence, to bonded labor. To contribute to this self-perpetuating poverty, low education and access to free utilities hinder any possibility minorities may have of finding regular employment outside their villages. As a last instance of poverty-induced attacks on the livelihood of workers, we have child labor. Children as young as six are forced to enter bonded labor conditions by their own parents who can’t pay for the debt forced on them on their own.
The cornerstone of this situation is an especially unequal relationship existing between workers and capitalists at the advantage of the latter, of which debt is the primary method of control.
The first step towards bonded labor is recruitment, through which usually capitalists pay loan advances to workers and have the ability to intimidate workers if the contract is broken as usually this kind of employment is local. To further ensure the perpetuation of this arrangement, employers pay only subsistence wages which only barely cover food costs. Moreover, these payments are usually in kind, for example taking the form of credit arrangements with local grocers, making it impossible for workers to even choose what to buy for themselves. To this we add a lack of transparency by employers, who only notify the existence of debts only at the end of the workers’ work contracts.
Employers may also take advantage of the pervasive illiteracy in South Asian countrysides, having workers authorize contracts they can’t read through thumb prints, not giving them a copy and leaving them confused as to what the amount of money they owe is. For migrant laborers, the provision of housing is also a common method of controlling them as they are under constant surveillance and their movements can be more easily restricted. In some unregulated sectors, mostly in isolated work environments and where workers are required to live in work premises; they also face intimidation by security personnel and other armed individuals as a way of controlling them, especially in the brick-kilns industry.
Workers who challenge the employer’s debt calculation may also face intimidation or harassment directed at themselves of their families. In Rajasthan, employers have reportedly filed false cases against bonded laborers who have questioned the employer’s reckoning of their earnings, or spread false rumors about the laborer within his community leading to his being ostracized.
South Asian governments are at best indifferent to this cringing situation. Their weak legislation, its failed implementation and the constant deregulations imposed by international formations of capital such as the IMF and the World Bank is part of a possibly intentional policy to maintain South Asian production costs low and compete with the advanced economies of imperialist countries. These international representatives of imperialism call for the reduction of obligations and regulations for imperialist capital and for the liberalization of labor markets, in effect freeing the trans-national movement of capital and the global trade of cheap labor, materials and services, an effective class assault on the working population.
The people who suffer the most from this social arrangement are marginalized groups who, with limited economic opportunities and social prejudice pointed at them, can’t sustain good health, attain educational qualifications and fulfill their human needs, important for individual mental and physical well-being.
Bonded labor is especially exacerbated by the union of chronic poverty and social discrimination based on caste, ethnicity or religion. Over 90% of bonded laborers are from Dality, minorities and indigenous communities, as a result of the existing social system of castes. Bottom castes can’t perform work of the high castes, they can’t access high caste places of worship, can’t access the same water sources, can’t touch the food high caste persons eat or freely associate with high caste members. In most areas, they cannot sell drinks, food and products used for worship, limiting their access to economic opportunities.
Dalit communities especially are systematically degraded, humiliated and made servile to high caste people. If they decide to defy these exploitative, discriminatory and humiliating roles, they face social stigma and boycotts which further restricts any opportunity to overcome discrimination and its related social diseases, such as poverty and dependency.
This is not an isolated phenomenon, since 43% of the Indian population falls under low castes, of which 17% are Dalits. Debt bondage is also prevalent amongst minority ethnic groups in India and Nepal, such as the Adivasis in India and the Tharus in Nepal. Refugees and internally displaced people are also particularly vulnerable to been trafficked into bondage. Afghan children are reported to be working as bonded laborers in carpet factories and brick kilns in the North West Frontier province of Pakistan while Nepali children, displaced to various urban centers due to armed conflict, have been subsequently trapped in debt-bondage.
Another group discriminated in South Asia is that which holds up half of the sky, women. On top of being discriminated in regard to inheritance and decision making, restricted on their movement and subjugated to the male, women are also discriminated in the labor market. They are not remunerated equally and are systematically abused and harassed in the workplace. When they get off work, they are burdened by additional unpaid work withing the household. The combined effects of low education levels, work place discrimination, exclusion from family decision making processes and a lack of familial property rights increases South Asian women’s vulnerability to labor exploitation and dependency, and thus makes them susceptible to bondage, to the point women are bonded by their husbands into prostitution, embedded within the system of polygamy and bride procurement.
Women may then be sent to work in brothels, or alternatively ‘loaned’ to brothel owners, where their earnings are shared between the brothel owner and their husband. The bonded woman is not allowed to leave the brothel until the debt of her husband has been cleared. The bride price itself can be considered an advance on her labor. Extreme economic poverty and social discrimination excluding people from certain professions and businesses, pushes the socially excluded into bondage.
The continuation of slavery in the form of bonded labor in South Asia is a demonstration of the continuing failure of capitalism to fix problems on its own. Such failure is a direct product of the logic of capitalism, the logic of production for profit, which defies national constitutions and penal codes.
Bonded labor in South Asia is a product of poverty and social exclusion. Those who are enslaved are desperately poor with no assets other than themselves to sell, as Marx characterized capitalism 150 years ago. Bonded slaves are predominantly from marginalized groups, with various studies estimating that around 90% of bonded laborers come from these. The continuation and normalization of these slavish arrangements establish a culture of toleration for abuses of the most extreme kind, including slavery, to be perpetrated against vulnerable people from these sections of society.
If bonded labor is to be eradicated in South Asia, capitalism and the logic of accumulation must be toppled.