Modern Slavery

What is Bonded Labour?

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[Gabby Sullivan]

It’s time to change this

Bonded labour, otherwise known as debt bondage, debt slavery or peonage, is when workers are exploited and trapped in situations to repay debts. Bonded labour is when employers hold a debt over a person and forces them to work in order to pay if back, yet once they have entered into the agreement it is often near impossible to repay and in turn escape the often-oppressive conditions.

Such a situation begins when a person acquires debt, which may be inherited through cyclical disadvantage, and the individual is unable to present the sum of money. The individual or family member then give themselves in to work against the loan and theoretically pay it off. The reality is their exploitation and long-term entrapment.

In some instances the worker may have an initial debt to the employer and is hired under an agreement to pay this back, yet whilst trying to become square the employer adds additional expenses. Stuck in this working environment with no agency to leave the individual still requires food and shelter which may be provided by the employer who add these costs to their running debt.

Vulnerable people may originally attain these debts through poverty providing no alternative to seeking loans from recruitment agencies and brokers to cover the upfront costs of an employment opportunity, such as travel expenses. The high interest rates can lead to a situation where constant work may see their debts remaining unchanged or rising. Therefore they are working for little to no money and can not improve their own or their family’s situation. The pay they are seeing may not be enough to cover daily living expenses, so they are continually forced to take more loans or payment advances.

Individuals in such situations are not purely bound by an invisible chain. Violence, threats and restriction of movement provide leaving is not a feasible option and their entire future is burdened through seeing no alternate life.

Bonded labour is intertwined in additional forms of modern slavery such as forced labour in sweatshops and trafficking. Migrant labourers can find themselves especially vulnerable to being trapped in bonded labour due to their reliance on immigration and legal documents, which may be confiscated. A key example is traffickers promising jobs abroad, stating if the individual takes up the offer they will be able to cover the borrowed resettlement money quickly and then earn a stable income, yet on arrival have their documentation taken. Realising it is an exploitative trap at this point is too late; they have no means to leave this foreign country and are made to work for the trafficker no matter how cruel the conditions are.

All too familiarly India is one of the most affected countries by this practice, particularly in mills, mines and agriculture roles. Labour opportunities are rooted in the caste system and it is the workers in the ‘untouchable’ Dalits caste that are predominately affected. Anti – Slavery International produced a short documentary and report on bonded labour in late 2017 which can be found here and spotlights the issue in the brick kiln industry.

Bonded Labour is illegal in almost all countries it occurs, including India, but this does not correlate to the authorities taking the appropriate steps to stamp out the practice and ensure proper work conditions. Additionally bonded labour is outlawed as a type of forced labour under international conventions and treaties. The International Labour Organisation sums it up well in saying “the problem with bonded labour lies not only in the conditions endured by bonded labourers on a daily basis, but also in the different cycles perpetuated by this labour relationship of bondage and servitude.”

At 30 Million to None we are always trying to shed light on the complicated factors contributing to modern slavery’s prevalence and millions being harmed daily in unethical, unsafe and inhumane circumstances. Debt bondage is yet another cog in the system of poverty, desperation, force and dependency which enables oppressors to steal the voices and futures of an alarming percentage of the population. It’s time to change this.

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