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Bonded labour

Bonded labour is the most widely used method of enslaving people around the world.  A person becomes a bonded labourer when their labour is demanded as a means of repayment for a loan. The person is then tricked or trapped into working for very little or no pay, often for seven days a week. The value of their work becomes invariably greater than the original sum of money borrowed. Often the debts are passed on to next generations.

Bonded labourers are forced to work to repay debts their employer says they owe, and they are not allowed to work for anyone else. Various forms of force are used to make sure they stay. In many cases they are kept under surveillance, sometimes under lock and key. Poverty and the threats of violence force many bonded labourers to stay with their masters, since they would not otherwise be able to eat or have a place to sleep.

The debts often play an important element in human trafficking. People who are offered a ‘job’ abroad often have borrow big sums of money to pay the traffickers to cover the costs of their journey and a fee for finding a ‘job’, often borrowing money against their family house or business. When at the destination it turns out that the promised job doesn’t exist they cannot leave anyway until the debt is paid off. This often goes together with the threats against the victims’ family back at home.

Where and how big?

Bonded labour has existed for hundreds of years. Debt bondage was used as a means of trapping indentured labourers into working on plantations in Africa, the Caribbean and South-East Asia, following the abolition of the Transatlantic Slave Trade.
In South Asia it is rooted in the caste system and predominately affects Dalits (the lowest caste called Untouchables) and still flourishes in agriculture, brick kilns, mills and factories. Bonded labour also remains a problem in some regions of South America.
In the Punjab region of India hundreds of thousands men, women and children are forced to work as bonded labourers in quarries and brick kilns where they receive little or no pay in return for a loan typically used for survival, including medical costs.

Today the International Labour Organisation estimates a minimum 11.7 million people are in forced labour in the Asia-Pacific region, the majority of these are in debt bondage.

Why does bonded labour exist?

Bonded labour exists because of the persistence of poverty and the existence of people who are prepared to exploit the desperation of others. The need for cash for daily survival forces people to sell their labour in exchange for a lump sum of money or a loan.

Despite the fact that bonded labour is illegal governments are rarely willing to enforce the law, or to ensure that those who profit from it are punished. Widespread discrimination against some social groups means they have limited access to justice, education and ways to get themselves out of poverty which is one of the main reasons the debt is taken in the first place.

Bonded labour exists in spite of being explicitly outlawed by the United Nations Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery (1956).


Whole families are in bonded labour. Kailash Bhika, 28, with his wife, Rambeti, 24, daughter Ratma, 4 and son Kalv (18 months)
©Stefan Ruiz/COLORS


Balbinerkaur, bonded labour in brick kilns, India
Balbinerkaur, along with her husband and two children have been trying to pay off her husband took over twenty years ago. They can't leave their brick kiln in Punjab, India, but with the kiln not working out of season for three months they will have to borrow more money to survive so the cycle of debt continues.
©Anti-Slavery International


Saruda Nepali, daughter of bonded labourers in Nepal
Saruda's parents work as labourers in a field harvesting rice, so she has to look after her little brother instead of going to school. She also has to fetch water and firewood, and sometimes work in the field where we live to harvest rice.
©Anti-Slavery International