DELHI -- This week, five non-governmental organizations here launched a national campaign against bonded labor called “Bandhua 1947.”
Activists say that millions of Indian laborers are trapped in a cycle of debt, which leaves them at the mercy of their employers. These laborers spend their lives working in brick kilns, rock quarries, rice mills, farms, and beedi factories. They do not have the knowledge or resources to leave or demand recognition of basic rights. The Bonded Labour System Abolition Act, 1976 which should protect them is not enforced.
Activists also say that it is difficult to pin down the number of bonded laborers in India because people are constantly on the move to find work across different states. Employers are also able to cleverly disguise their criminal activity. Human Rights Watch estimates India has 40 million bonded laborers.
"The issue and related advocacy work is so deep that any substantive work would require resources far in excess of [what's] currently available," said Sandeep Chachra, head of ActionAid India, an NGO involved in the campaign.
SmartPlanet spoke with Saju Mathew, head of operations for the International Justice Mission in South Asia, about funding and objectives of the campaign.
SP: How are the NGOs funding this campaign?
SM: Google is the key funder for the campaign. This particular campaign is something that Google had said they wanted to engage in because they understood the problem of trafficking.
SP: How much money is Google giving?
SM: This campaign is about $4.5 million to be used over three years.
SP: What’s the plan of action for three years?
SM: What we’re trying to do is to highlight that the problem of bonded labor is a nation-wide problem. And it’s something that can also be solved. It doesn’t have to seem overwhelming.
Wherever we’re working, across a dozen different states, we’re trying to mobilize the victimized population so that they would ask for more protection of their rights, educate the government and ask the government to identify and rescue more people who are trapped in bonded labor. We’re trying to find a way for the central government to help push the states to strengthen their approach to it.
SP: How will the money be used?
SM: The majority of the money goes towards doing trainings and educating, mobilizing and gathering information and rescues.
SP: Is 4.5 million a significant amount?
SM: For Google, it’s certainly not. I know that when they do campaigns to educate people on medical issues and HIV, it’s significantly more. So in some ways, it’s a fairly small amount because what we’re talking about is to reach the entire nation on a budget like that.
SP: How is bonded labor today different from feudal bonded labor?
SM: A long time ago bonded labor was that there was a landlord--he was a powerful person, owned the land and then people lived on the land but they could only work for this land. Landlord set all the terms and conditions of their employment. They were bonded to this land.
Now what we find is people that are in the Schedule Caste and Schedule Tribe communities, because of poverty and just difficult situations, they need jobs. So the owners give an advance of money upfront. A lot of times the advance goes towards a need like paying a hospital bill.
Overtime what they find is that they are not getting paid what they think they were. And the owners say that half the income is being put towards your advance. But they don’t give them enough to survive. So they are always struggling.
So they have to borrow a little bit more, a little bit more. Because the owner controls all the terms of their life, they cannot find a way to get out of this debt. It is very common for us to find someone who said I borrowed Rs. 2000, Rs. 3000 and now owe Rs 16,000.
SP: Can they run away?
SM: Sometimes people run away so the owners will go to their village, track them and bring them back. And then they say the car, the vehicles, all it took me to track adds on to the debt.
Because the laborers are uneducated, they don’t know if it’s funny math or legitimate. The debt or advance is just like bait if you’re trying to catch the fish. Only once the fish takes the bait do they realize that they see there is a hook. The laborers can’t leave until they pay off the advance. They can’t work anywhere else. Well that’s illegal. That’s bonded labor.
SP: A lot of companies have exclusive contracts. What makes this bonded labor?
SM: The reason that they do this is because . . . [this] form of giving in advance and telling people that their freedoms are restricted has been a tactic used by people in a wealthy position to take advantage of the poor. So the Bonded Labor Act is devised to make sure that this kind of scheme is not perpetrated.
There may be businesses that engage in contracts and requirements but there is a bartering, there is a give and take, there is legality to it. Here there is just one side setting all the terms. People don’t lock you up in a place, make you live there, work there and don’t pay you any real proper wages. That whole restriction takes it out of the ambit of contracts at a corporate level. And the difference in disparity, the power differential is also a factor.
SP: What happens after you rescue people?
SM: We (IJM) go in with the government and when they are rescued, we have social workers that immediately begin to develop a relationship to get to know them. And then we take them back, almost the same day generally, to their native place. If they don’t have a place or home, we give them temporary structures, food provisions that last about a week or so and then we give them tool kits so that they can get some job right away.
We have a two year aftercare program. The primary thrust of that are regular visits to their homes. We go and visit them. We make sure their children are in school, we help them find jobs, and we connect them with self-help groups. We try to do counseling. We start bank accounts. We find that 95% of people who we’ve rescued out are safe and do not return to bonded labor after two years.
The other thing we do is work with the prosecutor’s office to file a criminal complaint.
SP: In your experience is criminal action taken?
SM: I would say in the last 10 years, having done around 150 or so cases, we’ve seen conviction in about a handful. They tend to be for one day in jail, and a few, six months to a year.
SP: Does the existing law on bonded labor need to be changed?
SM: The main thing we are recommending is enforcement of the existing law. The Supreme Court has recently handed down a judgment that says bonded labor is rampant. You can find almost no convictions in the entire country on bonded labor. How can you not convict an individual who is trafficking and stealing the life of another human being and using them as a piece of property and then robbing the children of education so that they don’t have much options so their future also looks like bonded laborer?
The criminal conviction of this issue is going to be the easiest and most direct deterrent. What we’re trying to do is really educate the government so that they would file FIRs on time, [and] the police would investigate these in a timely basis. All of those training have to happen.
SP: Why hasn’t this happened so far?
SM: I don’t know. I don’t know what the political will is, what the prioritization of this is. I think some of it is confusion because people say I don’t know what’s wrong with it – they have to work, he is giving them a job, they borrowed money.
But only when you come closer do you realize that these people are not free. That they get beaten. That women often complain of sexual molestation. Children are not allowed to go free. So if you look from here, it just looks like a place of business because they don’t have to use chains and fences. A proactive step of going and identifying this more closely, that’s what really needs to happen.
SP: Would the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, which provides 100 days of work in a year, play a part in controlling this?
SM: What NREGA tells people is that there is a guaranteed job. If you need a job, come to us. If you need money, come to us. So it stops the flow of employers having this almost carte-blanche full hand on getting the laborers.
SP: Have you set some targets for the next three years?
SM: We’re still too early in that process. We’re talking to different ministries and mapping out the various government bodies that would be the best for it. Our hope is that by the beginning of 2013, we’d be able to have our objectives outlined and defined and all the different NGOs would be on board.
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