“. . . that the peasants shall not work for nothing, since the labourer is worthy of his hire.”

The title of this post is a quote from the eighth of the Twelve Articles of the Schwabian Peasants, from 1525. These articles are a plea to be released from serfdom and oppressive requirements for forced labour, to be judged according to written laws, to have religious freedom and be able to call their own pastors, and to be able to gather resources from common public lands and waterways. I re-read these articles recently, in the context of a recent rescue, as the fifth article memorably begins “We also have a grievance about wood-cutting,” and that line has stuck with me through the years. This time, on re-reading, the third article’s cry for a fundamental right to freedom stood out the loudest:

It has been the custom hitherto for men to hold us as their own property, which is pitiable enough, considering that Christ has delivered and redeemed us all, without exception, by the shedding of His precious blood, the lowly as well as the great. Accordingly, it is consistent with Scripture that we should be free and wish to be so.

The issues from 1525–that the labourer is worth of his hire; that people are free and ought not be held as property–have yet to be fully vindicated.

I returned to these articles, as I noted, after a rescue earlier this month. That rescue involved wood-cutters, some whom had spent the last two decades in bondage and whose children had been born into bondage. Here’s the story, as reported by the Hindu:

Sixteen bonded labourers, including four children, who were forced to cut wood 18 hours a day were released from bondage here in Nellore district recently. . . .

The owners, who forced them into bonded labour belonged to an upper caste in the region. Most of the victims belonged to the Yanadi tribe (ST) and they were toiling hard from 6 a.m. to midnight. . . .

It is found that the labourers were forced to make bundles of hundreds of kilos of wood each day and received only Rs. 500 for Rs. 1,000 [$8 to $16] a family every two weeks, which is far below the minimum wage.

Enquiries by the NGOs revealed that some of the labourers had received a small advance of Rs. 13,000 [$210] in 1994 from a man who later sold them to the most recent owners.

As the article also explains, the labourers were not allowed to take on other work or to leave the job premises without permission and without leaving family members behind as security, and the children were not allowed to attend school but instead forced to join in the work. These are sadly common elements of bonded labour.

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