Slavery is widespread in India. Bonded labor, in which a person is bounded by a loan advance taken against their work, resulting in a loss of control over labor conditions and terms of work, is rooted in the caste system and related types of customary feudal agricultural relationships. Due to the high interest rates charged and the abysmally low wages paid, the debts are seldom settled. Bonded laborers are frequently low-caste, illiterate, and extremely poor, while the creditors/employers are usually higher-caste, literate, comparatively wealthy, and relatively more powerful members of the community.
The Bonded Labor System (Abolition) Act, 1976 abolishes all agreements and obligations arising out of the bonded labor system. It aims to release all laborers from bondage, cancel any outstanding debt, prohibit the creation of new bondage agreements, and order the economic rehabilitation offered bonded laborers by the state. However, the extent to which bonded laborers have been identified, released, and rehabilitated in the country is negligible. In spite of the encompassing and seemingly progressive legislative framework, the use and abuse of Dalit bonded laborers in India remains endemic within a range of occupations and branches, both rural and urban, such as agriculture, forestry, fishing, domestic work, and cleaning. A report by Anti-Slavery International in 2008, revealed that dalit bonded laborers are employed to carry out the most physically straining and menial types of work in industries such as silk farms, rice mills, salt pans, fisheries, quarries and mines, tea and spice farming, brick-kilns, textile and domestic work.
Conditions for bonded agricultural laborers are among the harshest. The work is grueling, days are extremely long, and payment is nominal and may consist of two sole meals a day with a yearly set of clothing.
Agricultural labour is especially linked to caste as the caste structures are deeply entrenched in rural areas. Realities reveal that landlords are high caste, small landowners are of lower castes, and the landless and bonded laborers are almost exclusively dalits. According to Human Rights Watch, caste hierarchies are not only confined to land, but also permeate every aspect of village life.
Patriarchal systems confine women to certain types of occupations, such as domestic work, silk farming, carpet making and weaving. Young girls are commonly recruited to work in spinning mills in India in return for the cost of their marriage or a dowry payment. The parents often wait several years before receiving the money, which is usually less than initially agreed upon.
The dalit women are at the absolute bottom of the social hierarchy. They face discrimination as Dalits, as poor and as women, making them the most vulnerable group. A study by the ILO reveals that women are restricted in decision making concerning household resources and control over money. Furthermore, the respondent women suffer food deprivation and malnutrition to a greater extent than the men. Having so-called feminized duties doesn’t relieve the women of other chores. Being women simply adds to their workload. The women express that they find caste discrimination from their landlords to be the most distressing.
Children are particularly vulnerable to forced and bonded labor. Even when in the care of guardians, they are pursued as targets for bonded labor. Various reports and studies have identified bonded child labor in a number of occupations including agriculture, brick kilns, stone quarries, carpet weaving, bidi (cigarette) rolling, rearing of silk cocoons, production of silk sarees, production of silver jewelry, gem cutting, diamond cutting, manufacture of leather products, in circuses, fisheries, shops and tailoring establishments, and domestic work.
A Human Rights Watch report from 2003 estimates that 350,000 children work in bonded labour in India’s child silk thread and weaving industry in the Karnataka and Varanasi districts alone(6). Reflecting national tendencies, the majority of the children are Dalit, SC/ST or Muslims. These children report of working nearly 12 hours a day. As a result of poor and hazardous working conditions the children suffer health problems and diseases as well as verbal and physical abuse from their employers. They report that they never receive the agreed wages, instead often getting just a small portion of the amount agreed upon.
Dalits are particularly vulnerable to bonded labor, because of their socio-economic status, but bonded labor is also conjoined with caste in the form of caste-based occupations.Two well-known forms of caste-based and bonded occupations in India are manual scavenging and the systems of forced prostitution.