Bonded labor is a form of modern-day slavery in which a person is forced to work to pay off a debt. Laborers are paid very little and have no control over their debt. In India, debt bondage aligns with the caste system to keep the lower castes (called Dalits, or Untouchables) impoverished. While this is a fate that could befall anyone, there are more safety nets in place for higher caste workers than for Dalits. COVID-19 keeps Indian laborers in debt bondage and has worsened the conditions.
Bonded Labor in India
Bonded labor is common in South Asian countries, despite it being banned in India in 1976. According to a 2018 survey, more than eight million people live in debt bondage in India, though experts estimate the actual number to be much higher. Most laborers work in India’s booming textile sector but bonded labor exists in every industry.
The conditions under which bonded laborers work are abhorrent. Men, women and children work 14-hour days with no breaks, and the treatment is brutal. Women and children are often victims of sexual exploitation. Dissent is met with harsh punishments. This includes vicious beatings and an increase in the debt owed. In 2014, a group of bonded laborers tried to escape their captors; two were caught and had their hands cut off as punishment.
The Effects of COVID-19 on Bonded Labor
The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the issue of debt bondage in India. As millions of migrant laborers were forced to move during the pandemic, factory owners scrambled for cheap labor to keep production going. Many companies recruited child laborers with promises of steady employment until the country reopened.
Moreover, many states in India have loosened labor laws to offset the effects of COVID-19 at the expense of the laborers. Punjab and Gujarat amended their Factories Act, which increased the work hours to 72 hours each week. Rajasthan has increased working hours from eight per day to 12. Uttar Pradesh has exempted companies from almost all labor laws for the next three years, including the ones related to occupational safety, health, working conditions, contract workers and migrant laborers. As a result of its secondary consequences, COVID-19 keeps Indian laborers in debt bondage and further restricts laborers the freedom to escape.
In July of 2020, GoodWeave International, an organization dedicated to fighting bonded labor, conducted a study on the effects of the pandemic on forced labor risks. Since the start of the pandemic, workers are three times more likely to report owing a debt to a contractor due to reduced income.
In addition, more children have been working during the pandemic to help financially support their families. CEO of GoodWeave International Nina Smith said, “there were 152 million child laborers around the world making products we purchase every day prior to the pandemic, down nearly 40% since 2000, according to the International Labor Organization.” However, while before the pandemic eight out of 10 children were in school, data suggests they will not all return when schools reopen. This is because their families have become dependent on their income.
Bonded labor perpetuates the cycle of impoverishment. When children miss school to work in factories, they are denied the chance to elevate themselves through education. When adults must put their money toward paying off insurmountable debts, their quality of life cannot improve.
There are many non-governmental organizations working to solve the problem of bonded labor. The International Justice Mission (IJM) works to rescue people from slavery and help victims get back on their feet. In 2020, IJM supported rescue operations that saved 15 people from a spinning mill, six from a cotton thread factory and three from a garment factory. Clement David of IJM said, “the only way to curb [bonded labor] would be for the government to conduct surprise checks and regular raids to prevent owners from employing child laborers. Also, a comprehensive rehabilitation package for unorganized workers and the vulnerable sector is the need of the hour for families to stop sending their children to work.”
GoodWeave International’s 2020 study also reported on solutions to end the practice of bonded labor. It reports that NGOs must deliver direct aid to vulnerable populations and support essential workers getting documentation to receive relief. Companies must also play a role by supporting on-the-ground relief efforts and building consumer awareness of adverse labor conditions. Governments must strengthen labor laws, subsidize transportation for migrant laborers and build awareness of existing relief channels.
Bonded labor is a reality for millions of people in India, but it does not have to be. With the combined efforts of the Indian government and NGOs, this practice can be ended in favor of fairer working conditions.
– Brooklyn Quallen