What is bonded labor?

Bonded labor, also known as debt bondage or forced labor slavery, is a form of human trafficking that typically involves the trafficker recruiting the victim as a way to pay off debt. It is the dominant form of trafficking world wide, and has a long history globally. 

Bonded labor occurs when a person owes a debt to his or her employer and cannot leave the employment until the debt is paid. Alternatively, it can be thought of as a loan in which a person or their labor is the collateral or the form of repayment. Often, the debt accrues with large interest rates, and the wages paid are so low that it is effectively impossible to exit the relationship.

In theory, this could be a voluntary transaction, but the actual experience on the ground is that bonded labor is exploitative and coercive. The targets are usually those who are most vulnerable and desperate.  Violence or threats of violence, against either those being trafficked or their families, are often used to entrap and confine the victims.  In December 2013, in Odisha, a contractor chopped off the right hands of two men who tried to flee when they realized they were being trafficked to work in a brick kiln.  In January 2014, in Karnataka, a ten-year old boy was held in captivity with his parents at another brick kiln.  When the child refused to work, the owner of the kiln beat the child’s hand so severely with an iron rod that the child might lose his left hand.

Bonded labor was prohibited under the 1956 UN Supplemental Convention on the Abolition of Slavery.  It is illegal under the constitution and laws of almost every country, and is a criminal offense under the constitution and laws of the nations of South Asia.  These widespread prohibitions are not, however, accompanied by widespread prosecutions or even public awareness, and forced labor flourishes with impunity in many places.

Bonded labor in South Asia:

Bonded labor is particularly prevalent in South Asia.  A 2013 report by Walk Free, an Australian NGO, estimated that 30 million people are victims of some form of slavery globally, including 14 million people in India, 2 million in Pakistan, and a significant proportion of the population in Nepal.  The only countries with higher per capita rates of slavery are Mauritania, where a widespread chattel slavery system persists, and Haiti, where there is widespread coercive child labor. The Economist summarized the grim totals:

 A December 2013 report in CNN-IBN estimated that in the state of Odisha alone, 30,000 people a year were trafficked out of Odisha by the mafia, and that this trafficking provided the mafia with an annual revenue of approximately $90 million (Rs 500). That profit, however, is not seen by those who are trapped.

Bonded labor is both a symptom of the poverty of South Asia, and also a system that perpetuates poverty.  Generally, those who live in bonded labor are excluded from accessing medical care, education, and skills training.  They cannot participate in economic growth or prosperity.  As Siddharth Kara of Harvard’s Kennedy School argued in his 2012 book Bonded Labor: Tackling the System of Slavery in South Asia, a goal of bonded labor is to push the price paid for labor to as close to zero as possible.  (Kara estimates that this system transfers annually up $15 billion in value from the victims to exploiters, at over $1,000 per individual.)  Those victims remain impoverished, separated from opportunities for a better life for themselves and for their communities.

Bonded labor under the law:

It is difficult to state the case against bonded labor any better than Indian Chief Justice P.N. Bhagwati did, in an opinion in a 1983 case before the Supreme Court:

The system of bonded labour has been prevalent in various parts of the country since long prior to the attainment of political freedom and it constitutes an ugly and shameful feature of our national life. This system based on exploitation by a few socially and economically powerful persons trading on the misery and suffering of large numbers of men and holding them in bondage is a relic of a feudal hierarchical society which hypocritically proclaims the divinity of men but treats large masses of people belonging to the lower rungs of the social ladder or economically impoverished segments of society as dirt and chattel. This system under which one person can be bonded to provide labour to another for years and years until an alleged debt is supposed to be wiped out which never seems to happen during the life time of the bonded labourer, is totally incompatible with the new egalitarian socioeconomic order which we have promised to build and it is not only an affront to basic human dignity but also constitutes gross and revolting violation of constitutional values.

Chief Justice P.N. Bhagwati, Bandhua Mukti Morcha vs. Union of India, 1984 AIR 802, 1984 SCR (2) 67 (16 Dec. 1983).

Some additional information on bonded labor:


  • For more, see here for Amanda’s post explaining the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, and describing how the law on bonded labour is applied in a particular case.