Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Freed from Bonded Labor

According to the ILO, today in the world there are 20 million people (i.e., the population of Texas) who are currently in bonded labor. Bonded labor is a variation of forced labor that is little discussed and only vaguely understood by most Westerners. In its typical manifestation, bonded labor occurs when credit is advanced to an impoverished person and then he and his family work until they have paid off the debt. But with bonded labor, they almost never do. The employer pays far below minimum wages and issues new advances for “expenses” and “interest.” Underpaid and overcredited, these employees are locked into years of involuntary servitude. Bonded labor is a violation of international law and India’s Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act of 1976. Under Indian law, the government will criminally prosecute the employers, cancel any debt of a bonded laborer, and compensate each bonded laborer 20,000 rupees ($460).

Today I joined caseworkers from IJM to visit dozens of former bonded laborers now living in small villages in the states of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. These lower caste members (formerly called untouchables) all had served years as bonded laborers for rice mill owners. One family we met today had accepted an advance ten years ago from a rice mill owner to pay the dowry for her wedding. The cost of the advance was 6,000 rupees ($137). Her family of four then became bonded laborers and worked in the rice paddies 12 hours a day, six days a week for the next ten years to pay off the debt. They never did. At the time they were released last year, the family “debt” had quadrupled to 26,000 rupees ($600).

In another village, a small thatched-roof shanty in a remote part of Tamil Nadu, we met with over 50 children in a one-room school house. Until last year these children were “generational bonded laborers,” having spent their entire lives with families in bonded labor. With the government’s compensation of $460, and the supervision of IJM caseworkers, these former bonded laborers are buying tiny plots of land, building small permanent houses (4’ x 6’ one-room brick houses for a family of four), purchasing cows for revenue, insuring their investment ($3 annual premium per $200 cow), handling money for the first time, opening a passbook bank account, and taking steps toward educating their children. When we met with them they thrilled at small pieces of chocolate, sang songs to welcome us, and were transfixed at the site of their blond-haired, blue-eyed guests. When I asked how many of them liked going to school, every single child raised their hand. They particularly enjoyed the site of their own images on digital camera. These families now look forward to a less bleak future in which the revenue from cows’ milk will provide them up to $1,000 a year, just enough to live on.

Obviously there are problems with implementation of the Indian bonded labor compensation scheme, as Human Rights Watch has noted. But there also is a problem with the way we traditionally envision the work of international lawyers in securing human rights. Typically one does not associate human rights lawyers with facilitating the enforcement of domestic statutory rights for guaranteed government compensation in far-flung countries. But that’s exactly what IJM caseworkers are doing. And more of us should be and could be doing more of it. Which is the topic of tomorrow’s post.