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Child Slaves in Modern India: The Bonded Labor Problem

From: Human Rights Quarterly
Volume 19, Number 3, August 1997
pp. 572-629 | 10.1353/hrq.1997.0030

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Human Rights Quarterly 19.3 (1997) 572-629

My sister is ten years old. Every morning at seven she goes to the bonded labor man, and every night at nine she comes home. He treats her badly; he hits her if he thinks she is working slowly or if she talks to the other children, he yells at her, he comes looking for her if she is sick and cannot go to work. I feel this is very difficult for her.

I don't care about school or playing. I don't care about any of that. All I want is to bring my sister home from the bonded labor man. For 600 rupees I can bring her home -- that is our only chance to get her back.

We don't have 600 rupees . . . we will never have 600 rupees.

--Lakshmi, nine-year-old beedi roller, Tamil Nadu. Six hundred rupees is the equivalent of approximately seventeen US dollars.

I. Introduction

"Bonded child labor" refers to the phenomenon of children working in conditions of servitude in order to pay off a debt. In India, there are an estimated fifteen million bonded child laborers, and possibly more. The debt that binds them to their employer is usually incurred by a parent, and ranges on average from 500 rupees to 7,500 rupees, depending on the industry and the age and skill of the child. The creditors turned employers offer these "loans" to destitute parents in order to secure the child's labor at an extremely low rate of pay. Typically, the parents accept the loans in order to meet subsistence needs, pay for funeral or marriage costs, or replace income lost due to illness or death.

Children sold into bondage work long hours over many years in an attempt to pay off the debts that bind them. Due to the astronomically high rates of interest charged and the abysmally low wages paid, they are usually unsuccessful. As they reach maturity, some of them may be released by the employer in favor of a newly-indebted and younger child. Many others will pass the debt on, intact or even higher, to a younger sibling, back to a parent, or to their own children.

As much as 85 percent of Indian bonded child labor is in agriculture. The balance is found in domestic and export industries and in the informal service sector. Industries with significant child bondage include silk, beedi (hand-rolled cigarettes), silver jewelry, synthetic gemstones, leather products (including footwear and sporting goods), handwoven wool carpets, and precious gemstones and diamonds. Services where bonded child labor is prevalent include prostitution, hotel, truck stop and tea shop services, and domestic servitude.

Poverty, while significant, is only one of many factors that contributes to bonded labor in India. Other elements include: an ancient tradition of slavery and debt bondage; the lack of small-scale loans for the rural and urban poor; the lack of a concerted social welfare scheme to safeguard against hunger and illness; a noncompulsory and grossly inadequate educational system; the lack of employment opportunities and living wages for adults; an ossified stratification of occupations, with little opportunity for upward mobility or intergenerational career changes within families; corruption and indifference among government officials; and endemic societal apathy. A final, omnipresent element is the caste system, which is closely intertwined with debt bondage.

Notwithstanding the prevalence of the practice, child debt servitude has been illegal in India since 1933, when the Children (Pledging of Labour) Act was enacted under British rule. Since Independence, a plethora of additional protective legislation has been put in place. There are laws governing child labor in factories, in commercial establishments, on plantations, and in apprenticeships. There are laws governing the use of migrant labor and contract labor. The Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act of 1986 regulates work hours and conditions for all child workers and prohibits the use of child labor in certain enumerated hazardous industries. (There is no blanket prohibition on the use of child labor, nor any minimum age set for child workers.) The most significant legal protection, for both adults and children in servitude, is the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, which strictly outlaws...


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