Family of bonded labourers in brick kiln, India
Family of bonded labourers in brick kiln, India. Photo: Pete Pattisson

Puspal, debt bondage victim India “We do not stop even if we are ill – what if our debt is increasing? So we don’t dare to stop.”

“[Other workers] tried to leave, but two got caught. They locked them up and started beating them. They told the workers, ‘if you want to go from here, you must pay 60,000, that is your debt’.

Puspal, former brick kiln worker in Punjab, India.

Puspal, above with her family, is one of millions of victims of bonded labour across the world. Also known as debt bondage or debt slavery, it 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 of the money they earn goes to pay off their loan. The value of their work invariably becomes greater than the original sum of money borrowed.

Puspal managed to leave thanks to the great support her family received from our project partners, but usually that it is extremely difficult. People bonded by debt face coercion, violence and intimidation if they try to leave.

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.

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.

In South Asia it still flourishes in agriculture, brick kilns, mills, mines and factories. Anti-Slavery International works in 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.

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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.

8 million people are estimated to be in debt bondage across the worldToday the International Labour Organisation estimates that around 50% of victims of forced labour in the private economy are affected by debt bondage – around 8 million people worldwide. 

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.

Bonded labour worker in India brick kiln

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