Bonded Labor and the Law

As an attorney (you’re leaving this page already, I know), it seems hard to talk about my work here without discussing the formal definition of the offense we are working to end.  We’ve attempted to describe it, but what is bonded labor?

First, bonded labor and human trafficking are separate offenses under most laws.  A person can be trafficked for bonded labor, for sexual exploitation, for organ harvesting, for adoption, and for other forms of exploitation.  Trafficking is done for the purpose of abusing people people; bonded labor is a profitable way in which trafficked people are exploited.  Many cases of bonded labor involve people being trafficked for the purpose of exploiting them as laborers.  Trafficking is a significant subject on its own, so that will be reserved for another time.

Bonded Labor

Under India’s Bonded Labour Abolition Act, 1976, the offense of bonded labor consists of two elements: (1) a debt or an obligation, and (2) the forfeiture of any one of four freedoms (i.e., rights).[1]  The former is the force that brings a person into the bonded labor system; the latter is the key entrapment that renders the situation one of bonded labor.

If these conditions are met, the law presumes that bonded labor exists, and the employer has the onus of proving that the situation is not one of bonded labor.  When a government official declares a person to be a bonded laborer, the person receives a release certificate proclaiming that the debt is invalid and annulled, and the person is entitled to rehabilitation compensation from the government of Rs. 20,000 (about $332), paid over the course of two years.  Bonded labor is also a criminal offense, punishable with three years’ imprisonment.

(1) A debt or obligation

A debt often serves as the lure that brings people into bonded labor.  As Grameen Bank and other microcredit institutions have noted, many of the global poor lack access to credit on fair terms.  Weddings, festivals, funerals, and illness all drive people to seek loans, and purchasers of bonded labor are among the creditors that offer loans in poor communities.  Hope is also a lure.  The opportunity may be falsely advertised as a work in a brick kiln on standard terms for the industry, with the additional benefit of a cash advance.  One can also be born to a debt, inheriting the obligation of a father or an uncle, or acquire the debt through marriage.  In addition, in some instances, there is no monetary debt incurred; instead, there is a social obligation to provide uncompensated labor.  Finally, a debt or cash advance isn’t necessary: if a person works for less than minimum wage out of economic desperation, this too is bonded labour.

(2) Forfeiture of one of four freedoms

The other hallmark of bonded labor is the forfeiture of any one (or more than one) of the four rights all laborers are due under the nation’s laws.

  1. Forfeiture of the right to receive statutory minimum wages for work, including by receiving no wages or only nominal wages;
  2. Forfeiture of freedom of employment, including freedom to change employers;
  3. Forfeiture of the freedom to move freely throughout the territory of India; or
  4. Forfeiture of the freedom to sell goods freely in the market.

The last point is a bit obscure.  For goods produced at home—such as hand-rolled cigarettes (bidis)—this includes the right to sell goods one has made personally in the marketplace, rather than being required to sell them to a designated middleman.

Frequently, cases of bonded labor present all of the first three conditions: the laborers receive weekly wages amounting to one-tenth to one-third of minimum wage; the laborers are denied permission to work for a different employer, and to pay back the loan from those earnings; and the laborers cannot leave or rarely can leave the facility (a brick kiln, a rock quarry, a rice mill, etc.) at which they work.  If a family is entrapped together at a facility, often only one member of the family will be allowed to leave to purchase provisions at the weekly market, or only one member of the family will be granted permission to travel to the native village for a few days for key events.  The remaining family members are kept back, inside the facility, as de facto hostages.  This was a Soviet method of control over dissidents, and it is also effective for controlling bonded laborers.

Bonded Labor in Practice: The Hongarahalli Rock Quarry

As with any crime or social injustice, there are events that remove the blinders from the public’s eyes, bringing into shocking daylight the evils occurring in the neighborhood.  The Hongarahalli rock quarry case, in 2000, was one such event.[2]  After this case, it was no longer possible to deny the existence of bonded labor in that state, Karnataka (though, a number of deniers persisted in their ways).[3]

One of the points Robert Fogel made in Without Consent or Contract, on slavery in the U.S. and the West Indies, is that the methods of production in slavery were not available on the open market.  The labor required was so brutal and dehumanizing that you could not purchase someone’s services to willingly work in the plantation system; the market simply would not clear.  The conditions of labor could only be extracted through force and denial of human rights.

The same is true in the Hongarahalli rock quarry case, and many other cases of bonded labor.  No one would willingly agree to the conditions of labor in that rock quarry, so deception, force, and coercion were used to keep them there, and the owners of the rock quarry were relieved of the practical obligation to pay any real wages to the workers.

The conditions at Hongarahalli came to light during elections in 2000, when some candidates for local offices entered the quarry to canvass for support.  There, they encountered laborers in desperate situations, including five men whose legs were bound with welded chains, and the laborers begged for rescue.  The candidates and their supporters were affiliated with Karnataka Rajya Ryota Sangha (KRRS), a farmers’ movement in Karnataka.  The candidates did not inform the local police of what they had seen.  The owners of the quarry were politically powerful, and at times would intimidate and abuse the workers by having the local police beat the workers.

Instead, the candidates came back later, accompanied by about a hundred members of the KRRS, and swarmed the quarry, outnumbering the owners and overseers.  These activists, accompanied with photographers and videographers, physically removed the bonded laborers, and brought them out into safety, into a public place, where their chains could be seen, and the reality of the situation could not be denied.

Ultimately, in 2009, four of the perpetrators were convicted, with the primary owner of the quarry and his son sentenced to just two years’ imprisonment and fines of Rs. 26,000 and Rs. 24,000, respectively, and two other abusers sentenced to just one year’s imprisonment and fines of Rs. 1500 (about $533, $492, and $31, in 2009).

That was the minimal punishment imposed for years of abuse at the Hongarahalli rock quarry, where twenty-three families of bonded laborers had worked, some for as long as a decade.  Sixteen of the families at the quarry were members of the Bhovi community, a scheduled caste that traditionally works as stone cutters.  Five men from the families had shackles permanently welded shut around their ankles, with a two or three foot chain attaching a 15 to 20 kilogram weight.

At the time of rescue, three of these men had been chained like this for more than two years, and the other two for six months and two months.  The men had been chained because they had attempted to escape, or to repay their debts through other loans so that they could leave the quarry.  In addition to their chains, these  men were kept locked in a shed at night, away from their families, and unable to protect their wives from being raped.  During the day, the men still worked in the quarry, hammering holes for dynamite, lighting the fuses, and running from the explosions with chains on their legs.  They were also tortured by being suspended by their arms from trees, their feet barely touching the ground; if they lifted their feet, the shoulder pain was unbearable; if their feet touched the ground, ants swarmed to bite their feet, which had been covered in sugar water.

The advances these families had taken was often quite small, reportedly only Rs. 500 or Rs. 2000 as an initial advance (in 2000, equivalent to about $12 to $58).  Others of the bonded laborers came to work at Hongarahalli when the owner of this quarry purchased their debts from the people for whom they had previously worked as bonded laborers.  The laborers should have been able to repay those debts in a matter of months, if not sooner, but this was impossible.[4]

As the laborers worked, they accrued fines of Rs. 100 to Rs. 1000 , for showing up late to work, or for failing to show up to work while hospitalized due to injuries sustained when the owner or operator beat a worker with a lathi until the lathi itself broke into pieces.  (A lathi is a baton carried by police officers and others, for crowd control.  The offense that merited such a beating? Asking why, despite all the work, the debt increased rather than decreasing).  Women and children were beaten for failing to work when they were sick.  False accounting also increased the debt.

The Hongarahalli rock quarry case was a horrific case, but I am aware of other cases of bonded labor that are equally horrific.  And in some respects, the case was standard.  Laborers were beaten for escaping, and other workers even feared to try to flee.  The laborers were denied permission to pay off their debts by working for other employers, or by taking new loans from other lenders.  When the women went to the market to buy provisions, they were closely supervised to ensure that they did not report their situation to anyone who might be inclined to help them. The laborers did not see the government as a source of help; instead, the local police sided with the owners and joined in abusing them.

And the entire structure of laws designed to protect people and employees—minimum wage laws, laws regulating safe working conditions in quarries and requiring that quarries be licensed, laws on the employment of children, and criminal laws prohibiting physical and sexual abuse—had no impact on the conditions of these laborers’ lives.  They were outside the protection of the law, working at the Sisyphean task of paying off an illegitimate debt.

It is also important to note that the initial debt—the small loan—is a fig leaf over the entire enterprise.  Consider that an unskilled worker, earning minimum wage without overtime, would earn about Rs. 66,000 in the course of a year.[5]  In many cases, a family works together to attempt to clear the advance.  A husband and wife, or a couple and their children, should earn multiples of that amount in a year’s time.  Instead, they are told repeatedly, over the course of years, that the debt has not been extinguished.  The work hours in bonded labor conditions also frequently extend far beyond the regimented nine-hour work day presumed under the law.  From an employer’s perspective, bonded labor is a way of reducing the cost of labor to as close to zero as possible, and of avoiding the need to comply with the strictures of the law.  That is what we are trying to end.


See also:


  • [1] For simplicity’s sake, I will follow the lead of a number of commenters, and focus on the definitions under Indian law, which both has the benefit of accessible online statutes, and which also has been influential regionally.  Pakistan’s Bonded Labour (Abolition) Act, 1992 contains a nearly identical definition to India’s Bonded Labour (Abolition) Act, 1976.
  • [2] I have no personal knowledge of this case.  The description is entirely based on public reports.  IJM’s office in this region did not open until several years after the events of this case.
  • [3] Hongarahalli, also spelled Hangarahalli, is located in Mandya District, an agricultural district in the far south of the southern state of Karnataka.  For Americans, districts are roughly analogous to parishes or counties, and states are fairly analogous to states.
  • [4] The minimum wage in India is highly particularized, and varies significantly by state, by industry sector, and by job within each industry sector.  Currently, the general minimum daily wage in Karnataka for unskilled labor is Rs. 211.50.  In 2000, the benchmark (non-binding) national minimum daily wage was Rs. 45.  If the applicable minimum wage in 2000 had been anywhere near that rate, these debts should have been cleared in a few months, if not sooner.
  • [5] A worker who earns the daily minimum wage in Karnataka of Rs. 211.50, working six days a week for every week of the year, would earn Rs. 65,988 (about $1097).  In many industries, the overtime rate is twice the ordinary wage rate.
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