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INDIA: Bonded Labour In India

HUMAN RIGHTS COUNCIL

Fifteenth session, Agenda Item 4

A written statement submitted by the Asian Legal Resource Centre(ALRC), a non-governmental organisation with general consultative status

INDIA: Bonded Labour In India

Bonded labour is prohibited in India by law. Though the Constitution directly and indirectly prohibits the practice, vide Articles 21, 23 (1) and 24, a specific law that prohibits the practice, the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act was legislated only in 1976. Despite the statutory prohibition, bonded labour is widely practiced. The worst affected are the children, particularly those from the Dalit community. The practice is so prevalent in the country, that even a village in Uttar Pradesh state, Bandhua, literally meaning bonded, is named after the practice.

Bonded labour is known in different names in the country. In the farming sector it is known as Hali in Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh; Kaimuti, Janouri, Kamiah and others in Bihar; Gothi in Orissa; Gassi-Gullu in Andhra Pradesh; and Panal Pathiran in Tamilnadu. The practice exists in non-framing sectors like the Devadasi practice of bonded sex workers; and in small-scale industries like firecracker, textile, leather goods manufacturing sectors, brick and tile kilns and granite extraction industries. The most affected by bonded labour in the non-farming industries are the children. There is no credible and collated national statistics available about the number of persons, in particular that of the children, affected by bonded labour in India.

Bonded labour in the farming sector is mostly due to caste-based prejudices practiced against the Dalit communities and due to the absence of a proper land reforms policy. In states like Kerala, where land reforms has been implemented by statute since the past four decades, bonded labour virtually has been eliminated as opposed to states like Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Tamilnadu and Karnataka where large extents of lands are still held by families that practice feudal forms of land ownership and labour employment.

Owing to the lack of livelihood options, large number of rural population are forced to work for landlords and eventually end up in perpetual debt traps resulting in entire families and villages ending up as bonded to the landlord for generations. The absence of functioning public health facilities and education opportunities literally push the rural population to work either as bonded labourers or to migrate into urban areas seeking odd jobs.

A large number of children employed as bonded labourers by the non-farming sectors like small-scale textile, firecracker, leather goods manufacturing, brick kilns and granite extraction units are from the families who are subjected to distress migration from the rural villages. In the cities, children from these families are employed as bonded labourers in restaurants and eateries or end up employed as bonded beggars or fall prey to sex trade.

Red light areas in cities like Mumbai and Varanasi have thousands of such children, male and female, from far-flung areas of the country and from neighbouring countries like Nepal and Bhutan. Owing to widespread corruption within the law enforcement agencies and their close nexus with city based criminal gangs engaged in human trafficking, rescuing the children fallen prey to human trafficking is literally impossible. Human rights defenders like Mr. Ajeet Singh of Guria in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh state and Ms. Hasina Kharbhih of Impulse NGO Network of Shillong, Meghalaya state are threatened by these gangs whenever they engage in rescue operations.

In addition to the domestic distress migration from rural villages to cities forming the never ending supply chain of bonded labourers in Indian cities, in Meghalaya state, extraction of coal in private coal mines in the Jaintiya hills region is exclusively undertaken by manual labourers, thousands of them bonded, who have come to work in the mines from neighbouring Nepal and Bangladesh to beat acute poverty in their home countries. Mining is carried out using primitive tools and with hands, in hundreds of unprotected and unregulated mines, throughout the year. Of the estimated one million foreign labourers, an estimated 70,000 are children from Bangladesh and Nepal.

The legal framework against bonded labour provided in the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976 is supported by other legislations like the Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act, 1970; the Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979; the Minimum Wages Act, 1948. Yet the practice continues unabated in India due to the failure in the implementation of the laws.

The Ministry of Labour, Government of India had initiated a Centrally Sponsored Scheme under which Rs. 20,000 is provided for the rehabilitation of each bonded labourer, to be equally contributed by the Federal and the State government. But, by and large, the process of rehabilitation is frequently delayed, particularly in the case of inter-state bonded migrant labourers, and the degree of concerted convergent action required on the part of the administration is rarely forthcoming. Prosecution of employers is also weak. Since the bonded labourers are very poor and asset less, most of them relapse into bondage, while others experience only a very marginal increase in income. The financial assistance from the government, even if realized, in the absence of any additional support mechanism for a released and asset less labourer is not sufficient support to start a new life. However increasing the quantum of the support amount is not a viable solution. Instead to end the practice what is required is the strict implementation of labour laws in India.

Internationally supported programmes for the elimination of bondage are few, with the exception of a number of initiatives for elimination of child labour. Since June 2000, the ILO has been implementing a project to prevent and eliminate bonded labour in South Asia. In India, the project has been operational in Rangareddy district of Andhra Pradesh and Tiruvallur district of Tamil Nadu.

Bonded labour must be addressed starting from the premise that lack of access of the poorest households to appropriate financial services is one of the causes of bonded labour. Preventive efforts must recognize the social dimensions of bondage, and thereby address it through public sensitisation and rights awareness, adult literacy, organising workers, income generation and vocational skills development. The strategies to eliminate bonded labour need to go beyond the symptoms to address the root causes (labour market segmentation, entrenched social discrimination, lack of financial services, lack of outreach of social partners in the informal economy). The multifaceted and deeply rooted nature of those causes requires an integrated and long-term strategy.

When designing interventions, a clear distinction must be drawn between 'severe' and 'mild' forms of bonded labour, the latter being more suited to specific micro-finance based solutions, which would be inappropriate for the former. The broad linkages between bonded labour systems, production structures and the pattern of development need to be better understood since the roots of bondage are related to factors such as production technologies on the one hand, and economic vulnerability and structural inequality, on the other. Long-term development and land reform measures along with poverty alleviation and social security are pathways out of bondage.

Finally, the persistence of bondage is a consequence of weak enforcement of labour laws and the laws of the land. India has a plethora of labour legislation regulating the conditions of work of contract and migrant labour, prohibiting child labour in hazardous industries, and for minimum wages. But these remain in large part unimplemented. More significantly, in case after case, there is violation of the fundamental human rights of workers, which are enshrined in the Constitution. A concerted effort to ensure implementation of the law, by government in close cooperation with employers' and workers' organisations and civil society, is called for in this respect.

ENDS

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