Bonded labour mutates & thrives in multiple industries

Last Updated : 21 April 2019, 02:37 IST
Last Updated : 21 April 2019, 02:37 IST
Last Updated : 21 April 2019, 02:37 IST
Last Updated : 21 April 2019, 02:37 IST

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Shyambar, one of 96 migrant labourers from Odisha rescued in March from the brick kilns of Koppal and Yadgir districts in Karnataka, had no idea his efforts to find work would force his family into bondage.

The family was finding it difficult to make ends meet when an agent visited their village and sold dreams of a better life, he recalled.

The agent gave each adult an advance of Rs 15,000 to Rs 25,000 and brought them to Koppal and left them in the custody of a brick kiln owner.

The labourers later came to know that the agent had actually taken Rs 35,000 per adult from the owner. “Within a week, we realised we had been tricked into bonded labour, using the advance as bait,” Shyambar told DH.

As many as 58 migrant bonded labourers, including 25 children, were confined for five months in the Koppal brick kiln. Fifteen of the children were forced to work alongside their parents.

Adults were paid only Rs 300 a week while the child labourers were not paid at all. “Forget saving, we didn’t even have enough money to buy provisions,” Shyambar said. The labourers were packed in small sheds with poor ventilation, and forced to work from 4 am till 7 pm, with breaks only for meals.

The minimum wage for a brick kiln worker in the state is Rs 455 a day for eight hours of work. A brick is sold at Rs 6 and a couple makes about 1,000 bricks a day.

Only one male adult from a family was allowed to go out for a few hours on Sundays to buy provisions. “The owner’s henchmen followed us closely even in the market. Our mobile phones were confiscated. So we had no means to communicate with the outside world,” Shyambar said.

As if that were not enough, the supervisor began harassing women workers. “It was difficult for us to garner local support as we are from a different region. When the supervisor crossed his limits, we protested. Because of the conflict, the supervisor and his men targeted one of our fellow
workers. With great difficulty, the worker escaped, returned to Odisha, and registered a complaint at the Koppal district office through a lawyer,” Shyambar said.

Socially and economically weaker sections are traditionally employed as bonded labourers in the farming sector. However, the system is now assuming newer forms. While it continues in agriculture and horticulture, it has also extended to small and medium manufacturing units involved in stone quarrying, brick making, handloom weaving, and textile, agarbatti and fireworks production.

In the past, individuals and families were sourced from inside Karnataka, but now they are increasingly being brought in from other states.

Harsh working conditions

Though the nature of exploitation has changed with time, many studies highlight the harsh living and working conditions bonded labourers endure. The use of violence as a mechanism for continuing the system is frequently noted by experts.

Raids in recent years have shown that bonded labour is generally found in places with a huge requirement for hard labour.

According to a recent study by the International Justice Mission (IJM) in Bengaluru Urban, Bengaluru Rural and Ramanagara districts, nearly a third of the informal labour force is potentially living under bonded conditions and 59 per cent of bonded labourers are victims of trafficking.

The study also observes that older forms of bondage, which stemmed from inherited debt and were typically longer in duration, are increasingly being replaced by individualised and temporary versions of bondage.

IJM is one of the few organisations addressing bonded labour in the state through identification, rescue and rehabilitation programmes.

Odisha, Assam, Bihar and Jharkhand are among the ‘source’ states from where vulnerable people are brought to more ‘prosperous’ states such as Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, where construction is booming.

In 2017, two families from Krishnagiri district in Tamil Nadu were rescued from a rock quarry in Jigani of Anekal taluk. They were forced to work for 19 and 24 years as bonded labourers. Unscrupulous agents, some running recruitment agencies, are involved in this racket. If they register a hundred labourers, they actually recruit thousands.

According to data released by the Union Ministry of Labour and Employment last year, Karnataka tops the list of states that have identified and released bonded labourers (66,281) since 1978. Tamil Nadu (65,573) comes second.

In 2016, the Union Ministry of Labour and Employment announced plans to release and rehabilitate an estimated 1.84 crore bonded labourers across the country by 2030, while also strengthening prosecution in these cases.

However, experts and officials agree there is no clarity about the scale and magnitude of this hidden crime, rampant in the unorganised sector.

“It is sad that one of the worst violations of human rights has remained a non-
issue for the administration, and in some instances, the judiciary as well. While it took decades after independence to enact laws against bonded labour and trafficking, now they are not being enforced either due to a lack of understanding or a lack of will. That is at the root of the tragedy,” L Mishra, a former Labour Union Secretary and special rapporteur, National Human Rights Commission, told DH.

Experts believe the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act (BLSAA), 1976, addresses in detail various aspects of the problem. However, due to administrative neglect and lack of political will, the implementation has not been effective.

No sincere efforts

This could also be because the victims are from socially and economically weaker sections with no proper representation, say experts. After 2013, some bonded labour cases were filed under Section 370 of the Indian Penal Code, which addresses the issue of human trafficking comprehensively.

“There are no sincere efforts to conduct surveys and identify victims, only after which can rescue and rehabilitation take place,” Mishra said.

The Action Plan on the Rehabilitation of Bonded Labourers in Karnataka, drafted last year on the basis of the findings of a committee, says most district-level vigilance committees are inactive. Shivaji Ganeshan, chairman, State-level Bonded Labour Verification Committee, explicitly mentions how district-level officials are in denial.

L K Atheeq, principal secretary, Rural Development and Panchayat Raj Department, Government of Karnataka, said vigilance committees would soon be reconstituted as required by law, and a comprehensive survey of bonded labourers conducted. Simultaneously, the government is planning awareness programmes.

“While the nature of this organised crime has evolved over time, the general perception is that, to be a bonded labour, the person should be chained or confined to a room. Sensitisation at all levels is required to bust myths and bring out the hidden elements of modern-day bonded labour,” said Prathima, associate director, IJM.

P Sunil Kumar, deputy commissioner, Koppal, told DH since there was no visible difference between bonded labourers and other workers, junior officials were hesitant to carry out inspections.

“They fear a backlash if they fail to establish the practice at the worksite. And seniors don’t get time to take part in every raid,” he said.

Another challenge is the existence of illegal kilns, which put migrants at greater danger. In Koppal, the district administration has issued notices to such kilns and given them an opportunity to get non-agricultural land certificates. “This brings all labourers under our purview,” he said.

Another aspect key to combating bonded labour is to hold all perpetrators accountable, Prathima believes.

“In many cases, the victims don’t know the details of traffickers. Also, often, people operate from different states. So they are not included in the accused list. Unless and until there are convergent efforts to book all offenders, this crime will continue,” she said.

DH News Service

Published 20 April 2019, 18:26 IST

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