“Is your hour’s labor worth mine?”
In a dystopian economy such as India’s, the pursuit of social justice remains a utopian agenda. Despite globalization, the general equilibrium rests on social exclusion, consumption disaggregation, and bonded and child labor. When it comes to the regulation of collective labor relations, the restrictive policies of government control have continued to prevail, displaying characteristics of the colonial and immediate post-war period.
In our country, the pervasiveness of the caste system is entrenched in the division of labor. According to the World Employment and Social Outlook: Trends 2020 Report by the International Labor Organization (ILO), there are more than 470 million who lack adequate access to work, in addition to the 188 million unemployed persons across the world in 2019. This means that one in five workers live in extreme to moderate poverty as of 2019. This data is of extreme relevance in the Indian context where there is not only division of labor, but also division of laborers. There is no denying the fact that inaccessibility to work and general unemployment exists and is affected by socio-political factors. This is worsened for the individuals belonging to the Avarna category, who face casteism, sexism, and ableism on an everyday basis.
This article is an attempt to highlight the atrocity that is bonded labor, through the lens of caste and gender discrimination in India.
Worker movements originated in Western Europe with rebellions leading to the formations of trade unions in bourgeois society. In India, the labor movement began with the formation of the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) on October 31, 1920.
As per the Bonded Labor (Abolition) Act, 1976 (“the Act”),’ bonded debt’ and the ‘bonded labor system’ are defined as the system of forced or partially forced labor of a debtor. It might be in exchange for a loan or interest that he or any of his lineal ancestors or successors received, or it might be a social or customary duty that comes with inheriting a title or being born into a particular caste or group. He is, therefore, compelled by obligation to perform labor or provide services for little or no payment. Any relative or descendant may likewise be subject to such a duty. There might also be limitations on freedom of movement, means of subsistence or employment, or the ability to buy or sell one’s goods or property on the open market, depending on the circumstances.
While bonded labor is abolished as per the Act and under Article 23 of the Constitution of India, this plague continues to exist. According to the Union Ministry of Labor and Employment, in the last four years, 13,512 bonded laborers were released and rehabilitated. Thus, while the menace seems to be abolished on paper, the neglected state of affairs has allowed organized networks to take advantage of social hierarchies and employ or supply bonded laborers. It is a vicious cycle of slavery that mostly disadvantages marginalized groups such as Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in India.
“Bonded laborers not bonded; are in a money-making racket” – Justice Hemant Gupta, Supreme Court of India
The aforementioned quote, spoken by a sitting Judge of the Highest Court of the Land, highlights the evident caste divide in the bonded debt system today. The existing structural deficiencies of the State create a recruitment system that hires hundreds of laborers into bonded labor and leaves them ostracized from development opportunities.
The murky intersection of caste, class, and gender with labor and the economy is evident in the Indian market through the most deplorable working conditions across the country. There exists a gendered and casteist divide in labor and it continues to affect women and the most vulnerable members of society.
The continuous denial by the State of the very existence of bonded labor is a threat that continues to debilitate society. Not only does the denial impact the bonded laborers, it also creates a false impression that the situation on the ground is hunky dory and perpetuates the myth that India has achieved social justice.
Illicit money lending and bonded labor exist, and shall continue to exist until the State takes active steps to reform society. This includes annihilation of the caste system because bonded labor permeates due to the upper castes being the landlords and exploiting the lowest rungs of society due to their inherent caste privilege.
When the State is neglectful, what options do the millions of excluded, overlooked and invisible laborers have? Do they quietly accept their dismal destiny because it has been served to them by their chosen representatives? This is a question that we need to ponder.
Suggestions and Conclusion
To bring an end to the menace of bonded labor and bonded debt, there needs to be structural changes. Firstly, there needs to be data collection and analysis on the prevalence of bonded labor in India. The number of women and children that are engaged in bonded labor and incidents of their sexual exploitation (as ‘payment’ for bonded debt) have to be taken into account. This data must be used by the Parliament to amend the already existing laws that abolish the practice. Moreover, yearly periodic checks must be done so that even if the practice exists in miniscule numbers, it is addressed, and the menace is brought to a much needed end.
In conclusion, I will summarize my thoughts in my poem titled “Revolution.”
When the dance of democracy begins
Let’s strive to work harder again
To end exploitation, both physical and mental
For India is a country which is monumental
To bring the country to its previous glory
Structural and systemic changes must be done, surely
Let the workers of the world unite
For a revolution is essential and with unity we shall strike
Hereby begins the end of exploitation
No more tears of sadness, misery, and abrasion
No eyes and hearts that are compelled by their material conditions
To bring a fairer and just world in existence
Shreya Sahi is a fourth-year law student at Symbiosis Law School in Pune, India.
Suggested citation: Shreya Sahi, India’s Ignorance of the Bonded Labor System and the Need for Reform, JURIST – Student Commentary, January 22, 2023, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2022/01/Shreya-Sahi-bonded-labor-India/.
This article was prepared for publication by Rebekah Yeager-Malkin, Co-Managing Commentary Editor. Please direct any questions or comments to she/her/her at email@example.com