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BONDED LABOUR

Bonded labour is the most widespread – yet the least known - form of slavery in 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. The value of their work becomes invariably greater than the original sum of money borrowed. Often the debts are passed onto the next generations.

Many bonded labourers are forced to work to repay debts their employer says they owe, and they are not allowed to work for anyone else. Violence and threats can be used to coerce them to stay, and in some cases they are kept under surveillance – sometimes under lock and key.

WHERE AND HOW BIG IS THE PROBLEM?

Bonded labour has existed for hundreds of years. Debt bondage was used to trap 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 still flourishes in agriculture, brick kilns, mills and factories. 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, widespread discrimination making large groups of people vulnerable to exploitation 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. In South East Asia bonded labour is rooted in the caste system and predominately affects Dalits (the lowest caste called ‘Untouchables’).

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.

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"To repay the loan we both had to do agricultural work on his farm for seven years." Read Mathura and Dolamani Bagh's personal story


The owner threw bricks at him and had to be admitted into hospital.

Read Bitu's* personal story


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