A family in debt bondage, also known as bonded labour or debt slavery, working in a brick-kiln in India.
Entire families have to work to pay off their debts in brick kilns in India. 

What is debt bondage?

Debt bondage, also called bonded labour or debt slavery, is the most common form of modern slavery. Despite this, it’s the least known.

Debt bondage occurs when a person is forced to work to pay off a debt. They are tricked into working for little or no pay, with no control over their debt.

Most or all the money they earn goes to pay off their loan. The value of their work becomes invariably greater than the original sum of money borrowed.  They face coercion, violence, intimidation if they try to leave.

Puspal’s story

“My husband had been working in the kiln for five years but didn’t seem to be earning any money. In the kiln the work finishes only when it finishes, it is endless.

“We do not stop even if we are ill because we fear – what if our debt is increasing? So we don’t dare to stop. We are kept in the dark about how much we owe. Whenever we asked, the debt was still not paid.”

Puspal and Raju were forced to work to pay off their debt to a brick kiln owner for five years, before Anti-Slavery International’s partners helped them to escape.

Bonded labour is most widespread in South Asian countries such as India and Pakistan. Often entire families have to work to pay off the debt taken by one of its members. Sometimes, the debt can be passed down the generations and children can be held in debt bondage because of a loan their parents had taken decades ago.

Debt bondage in a wider sense is spread much beyond South Asia and is an element of many other forms of slavery such as forced labour and trafficking. People borrow money to pay their traffickers for a promised job abroad. Once at their destination their passports are taken away and they cannot leave until they pay off the debts they owe to their traffickers.

Where does debt bondage exist and how big is it?

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, mines and factories. Anti-Slavery International works in of India where hundreds of thousands men, women and children are forced to work as bonded labourers in brick kilns and agriculture, often suffering extreme exploitation and abuse.

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.

Bonded labour flourishes because of poverty and widespread caste-based discrimination. Limited access to justice, education and jobs for discriminated groups makes it difficult to get out of poverty.

The need for cash for daily survival forces people to sell their labour in exchange for a loan. In South Asia bonded labour is rooted in the caste system and predominately affects Dalits (a caste called the ‘Untouchables’).

Despite the fact that bonded labour is illegal the laws are rarely enforced, particularly where the people who exploit those from more vulnerable groups belong to the ruling classes.

Our projects support bonded workers in claiming their rights. We also lobby governments to apply laws fairly and equally.