“If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong”
– Abraham Lincoln
Bonded Labour is a socio-economic practice. As per the definition provided under Section 2(e) of the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976, bonded labour means, “any labour or service rendered under the bonded labour system.” In other words, bonded labour occurs when an individual pledges for their labour and services as security for the repayment of the loan or any other obligation. Once an individual detains themselves to an undefined service, it can pass from generation to generation. In India, it can be traced back from caste hierarchy to federal structure. The caste system divided the individuals into four categories, i.e., Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra. Unlike other castes, the individuals belonging to the lower caste categories have limited means to satisfy their physiological needs, hence indebting them to the higher caste of social strata and as the debtor has nothing to provide as security, the creditor behest them to pledges for his person and work for him in lieu of the redemption of debt and interest. Even though in recent federal structure, the Government of India implemented the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976 (hereinafter, referred as, ‘The Act’), its existence is observed unscrupulously due to avarice of entitlement, power and money. As bonded labour guaranteed the creditors, a permanent source of cheap labour on a long-term basis.
STATISTICS OF BONDED LABOUR IN INDIA
The statistics of existence of bonded labour in India is difficult to collect, the Government of India does provide an Annual Report every year, listing either the statistics of the bonded labourers or the statistics of released and rehabilitated bonded labourers. As per the Annual Report 2008-09, by the Ministry of Labour and Employment, 18 of India’s 22 states(then) have documented cases of bonded slavery: Andhra Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Haryana, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Orissa, Punjab, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, and West Bengal.
The cases of bonded labour started to increase, as in 2014, the International Labour Organization recorded 1.17 Crore bonded labourers in India. Further in 2016, a list of released and rehabilitated bonded labourers across India was published, which showcased a total of 2,82,429 bonded labourers’ release and rehabilitation, with Tamil Nadu being the highest recorded number (65,573).
LEGAL PROVISIONS IN INDIA AGAINST BONDED LABOUR PRACTICE
The cases of bonded labour existence even after the implementation of the act, which came into force with the aim to abolish the bonded labour system with a view to preventing the economic and physical exploitation of the weaker sections individuals, is staggering.
Section 4 of the act states that after the implementation of this act, every bonded laborer shall stand free and be discharged from any obligation. It is further stated that, no person shall be advanced or compelled to any kind of bonded or forced labour. Since existence of bonded labour is due to debt bondage, Section 5 of the Act, states that any agreement or contract, that states an individual or any member of the individual’s family is required to do any work or render any service as bonded labour, such agreement or contract will be void ab initio. Further under Section 13, a Vigilance Committee is set up in each district and sub-division by the State Governments, consisting of District Magistrate/Sub-Divisional Magistrate as the Chairman of the committee, 3 Schedule Caste or Schedule Tribe individuals residing in the district/sub-division nominated by the District Magistrate/Sub-Divisional Magistrate, 2 Social Workers residing in the district/sub-division nominated by the District Magistrate/Sub-Divisional Magistrate, 3 official or non-official agenciesrepresentatives nominated by the State Government/District Magistrate, and an individual to focus on the financial and credit institutions in the district/sub-division nominated by the District Magistrate/Sub-Divisional Magistrate. Thefunctions of Vigilance Committee is provided under Section 14 of the Act, which states that District Magistrate or any officer authorized by him shall make every effort and take necessary actions to make sure the provisions of the Actare being properly implemented, guide freed bonded labourers to appropriate economic and social rehabilitation, coordinating the functions of rural banks and co-operative societies with a view to canalizing adequate credit to the freed bonded labourer, keeping an eye on the number of offences of which cognizance has been taken under this Act and defending any suit instituted against a freed bonded labourer or a member of his/her family or any other person dependent on him/her for recovery of the whole or part of any bonded debt or any other debt which is claimed by such person to be bonded debt. The act further provides punishment for the enforcement and advancement of bonded labour under Section 16 and Section 17, stating an imprisonment for a period of 3 years or fine upto Rs.2000/-.
The practice of bonded labour in present existence not only accounts for breach of this act, but also contravenes individuals fundamental rights. Article 21 of Indian Constitution ensures right to life and liberty. The Supreme Court of India has further interpreted this Article among other rights, for instance:- right to free movement, right to eat, right to sleep, right to work, right to be free from inhumane treatment, right to the benefits of protective labor legislation and the right to speedy justice. All these rights are infringed in the practice of bonded labour. Article 23of Indian Constitution forbids the practice of bonded labour and other types of slavery traced in both ancient and modern times. Trafficking of individuals, begging and other similar kinds of forced labour are prohibited and any contravention of this provision shall be an offence punishable in accordance with the law. Begging is a form of forced labor that allows the individual to work without any compensation. The other kinds of forced labour as interpreted by the Supreme Court of India in Asiad Workers Case (1982), in which both paid and unpaid labour were prohibited by Article 23, as long as the element of force or compulsion was present in the worker’s ongoing services to the employer. The Court further shed the light on the term ‘forced labour’ defining it as, “providing labour or service for another for less than minimum wage remuneration. Bonded labour practice, includes child labour as well.” Article 24 of Indian Constitution prohibits the employment of children in factories, mines, and other hazardous occupations.
Since the existence of bonded labour in India was influenced by the caste system, another act was implementednamely, the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989(hereinafter, referred as ‘SC & ST Act’), for the protection of individuals belonging to Schedule Caste and Tribe to be bonded labourers. Section 3, sub-section 1(h) of the SC & ST, Act, states that any individual not being a member of the SC and ST, makes any individual belonging to SC and ST to begar or perform as bonded labour shall be imprisoned for a term of 3 months which can extend upto 5 years and a fine as decided by the Court.
The individuals’ breach of rights are observed in these cases, where years of bondage due to debt and ill-treatment had an impact on the victims on their physical and mental health. The Act seeks to provide protection to the individuals, but the rate of increase in bonded labour is higher as compared to the rate of punishments of the culprits. There are few landmark judgments regarding bonded labour matters as below:
NATIONAL AND INTERNATIONAL ORGANIZATIONS INVOLVEMENT
Besides the involvement of Judicial Courts, organizations like National Institute of Rural Development (NIRD), theNational Human Rights Commission (NHRC), the Centre for Education and Communication (CEC) and the International Labour Organization (ILO), aims to abolish bonded labour system and to release and rehabilitate bonded labourers in society with dignity. NIRD was able to recognize the ‘lean season’ that led individuals to participate as bonded labourers due to scarcity of food. The ‘lean season’ is the month of July-August. The organization further works on providing SC and ST families in rural areas an adequate amount of means and access to their basic necessity to abolish the bonded labour system. NHRC was established in 1993, as a part of India’s Human Rights Act. It is one of the most active organizations working on protection of Indian citizens’ human rights. It formed a mechanism for the citizens to file complaints of human right violation and bonded labour is on the list of major types of complaints. Over the years, NHRC has held investigations and reports on the various matters pertaining to bonded labour. It has also challenged the decisions of the court on the matter of bonded labour and continues to conduct projects and rescue missions for the same. CEC aims to provide education to Indian workers. CEC focuses on understanding the evolution of labour relations and further spreading awareness and educating them regarding the bonded labour system and actions to be taken against it. ILO focuses on the abolishment of the bonded labour system. Its aim is to provide essential services for economic and social empowerment, strengthen the capacity of households to generate a livelihood, contribute to the reduction of expenses that can push them into bondage, reduce their economic and social dependence on the employer, and support their greater social inclusion in the community. It also focuses on the functioning of the NGOs regarding this matter and the financial functioning of provisional loans to the rural sector, in order to not be debt-bound to any individual. As India is the founding member of ILO, it is considered as a permanent member since 1922. The first ILO Office in India started in 1928. ILO is able to recognize the issue of bonded labor in a broader spectrum. ILO even organized 4 conventions highlighting the issue of bonded labour, Forced Labour Convention, 1930, Abolition of Forced Labour Convention, 1957, Protocol to the Forced Labour Convention, 1930 and Forced Labour (Supplementary Measures) Recommendation, 2014. ILO is working on the abolishment of slavery in India, Nigeria, Haiti, Kuwait,etc. The steps taken by ILO by holding conventions, discussing the issue, collecting data, is something which India could adapt to have a proper data on bonded labourers and assist in their abolishment.
Countries like UK, Singapore, Vietnam had taken initiatives for the abolishment of forced labour, slavery trade system, etc. UK introduced Modern Slavery Act in 2015 (hereinafter referred as ‘the MS,Act’) to combat modern slavery, which refers to slavery continuing to present days including offence like trafficking as well. The MS,Act, focusedon prosecuting traffickers and slave masters; increasing maximum sentencing for the offenders, creating an independent Anti-slavery Commissioner to drive improvements and a better coordinated law enforcement response, working in the interests of victims and introducing a vital new tools to restrict the activity of criminals who have been convicted of modern slavery offences. Such crucial steps taken by the parliament of the U.K. is a necessity to be able to slavery. India should appoint a specific officer under the Act, to provide better responses for improvements in the legislation. ILO-China launched a SAP-FL China Project, whose purpose is to improve capacity of the Government of China to address the law enforcement aspects of the trafficking cycle, building on the data-gathering, victim identification, law and policy, and operational activities that different ILO units had been carrying out for years. The Government of China via this project was able to spread the awareness regarding the existence of forced labourers and received assistance from the government and public to implement new policies and laws for the protection of victims of forced labour. India should take such initiatives to spread the awareness of bonded labour existence and enhance their data-gathering systems, laws and policies for bonded labourers.
CEC, NHRC, and NIRD have made important strides to strengthen human and labor rights conditions for labourers in India. Their underlying weakness, nevertheless, is that they are unlikely to be able to expand their beneficial influence in all of India. The system of bonded labour was in decline, owing to efforts from many NGOsand the supervisory role played by the Supreme Court. The bonded labour system continues to thrive. The rehabilitation release for bonded labourers is crucial to avoid them being kept into bondage again. Nonetheless, the Central and State Governments have jointly failed to implement the required rehabilitation procedures. The Central and State Governments should establish ground-rules between each other, in order to establish a better system for the abolishment of bonded labour. Further, the mindset of higher castes or of higher economic classes has not completely changed; the news reports indicated that even domestic maids are treated like animals and different forms of abuse, including sexual harassment, are perpetrated against them. The NGOs, Government and Citizens should stand up and take necessary steps to abolish this inhuman system by carrying out studies and national surveys to recognize the total number of bonded labourers, by providing responsibilities to all the authorities other than mentioned in the act for the abolishment of bonded labour system, 5 years of prison is not enough punishment for years of abuse hence stringent punishments should be implemented for the same, providing an adequate rehabilitation to the bonded labourers as soon as they are found and launching a nationwide public awareness campaign regarding the legal prohibition of bonded labour. Slavery was invented by mankind, and it can only be abolished by mankind, every citizen need to participate with the NGOs and Government to let bonded labourer be freed from pain and abuse.