Bonded Labor in South Asia

1419_Benares_bricks2Bonded labor or debt bondage is the largest form of slavery in the world. Victims become bonded laborers when their labor is demanded as a means of repayment for a loan. Often times the conditions and terms of the loan have not been explained and change frequently, making it almost impossible for the victims to ever repay the loan. If the bonded laborer dies before the loan is paid off then the debt gets passed on to the surviving family members. Forced labor is said to bond an estimated 12.3 million people across the globe to perpetual debt.

Unpaid Debt The majority of bonded laborers in the brick industry of Pakistan and India were born into their parent’s debt. Combined with lack of education and dire poverty, the vicious cycle is one that usually ends with death. The CNN Freedom Project tackles the issue of bonded labor and tells the story of a kiln worker in West Bengal, India who borrowed $110 to marry his wife. Now two decades later, his entire family is still in debt to the land owner who forces he and his family to work 14 or more hours a day in the brick kilns to repay the debt. The kiln workers then must take out more loans to pay for health care and housing making and the unscrupulous kiln owners keep adding up the money owed and as much as 100 percent interest on the initial loan.

Women Kiln Workers Often it is the women in the family who are forced to work in the brick kilns to pay off their father or husband’s debt. It is common for female kiln workers to begin making bricks when they are very young to help pay off her parents’ debt. By the time she has been married off, usually by the age of 12 she will have also assumed her husband’s debt. If the woman has managed to stay alive after decades of squalid living conditions, dirty water and poor medical care, she will still be working in the kiln factory under the debt of three or more family members--a debt she has never personally accrued and will never pay off in her lifetime. This cruel and inhumane treatment of kiln workers has not gone unnoticed. The National Database Registration Authority (NADRA) have been trying to set up mobile camps near kiln factories to register the workers in the social security system so that they can get government benefits without taking on more loans from their employer. But the wealthy and powerful kiln owners did not take this intrusion into their businesses very well and hired armed gangsters to show up at the registration camps and intimidate the workers. The good news is that the NADRA has not given up and has plans to try to register more kiln workers in the near future.