Slavery, Not a Past Tense

modern slavery

The word ‘Slavery’ or ‘bonded labor’ makes us think about the transatlantic slave trade, when captured Africans were transported to American continent to work in the plantations. The Oscar winning “12 Years a Slave” (released last year) chronicled the abominable issue, where the destitute people are used as some kind of commodity. Each beatings hurled on those characters induced us to feel for all those people, who got trounced by their masters in 19thcentury. Eventually, that kind of slavery was abolished but it is still, well and alive, even in this modern world. We are not talking about the third-world technical employees, working arduously for a profit-minded corporation. No, it’s not a metaphor for menial tasks; it is literal.

ILO – International Labor Organization says that nearly 29.8 million men, women and children around the globe are bonded by the chain of slavery. Although, slavery is illegal in all the countries, these people are treated as a commodity, for little or no pay and at the complete mercy of their employers. Unlike the slavery in or before 19th century, people are not sold in auction. They are gradually taken control by exploiting their labor coercively. A large amount of loan is usually given. Later, they are tricked or trapped into working for very little or no pay, often for seven days a week. Over the years, their work becomes invariably greater than the original sum of money borrowed. And the more distressing fact is that these debts are often passed on to the next generation.


India comes first in the bonded labor (nearly 13 million), beating China by a huge margin. If you rank the countries by slavery per capita, then countries like Pakistan, Haiti might come first. But, as for now, a large number of people are enslaved in India, inside stone quarries and garment factories. The structured caste system of India mostly confines a vast majority ‘Dalits’ and other indigenous people (Adivasis). So, it is not just an economic issue, but has an important social dimension. These lower castes are believed to owe a duty of labor to their employers for performing menial tasks. So, the struggle against bonded labor thus strengthens the efforts to abolish the Indian caste system.

Sex trafficking and organ harvesting usually get a lot of attention from the media, but labor trafficking is more insidious and pervasive of all and the unfortunate fact is that, we are inured to it. Among the bonded labor, Brick kilns of India serve as the epicenter of abuse. India is the 2nd largest brick producer in the world (annual production of 100 billion bricks). The amount of advance, given to lure the people into bonded labor varies from Rs. 500 to 6,000.


On an average, laborers in brick kilns work up to 14 to 16 hours a day, making a brick-laying work that can prepare up to 500 bricks per day. Lacking license is one of the common traits of a brick kiln. Due to the severe nature of bonded labor, workers and their families are frightened for their physical safety and sadly remain in the brick kilns rather than approaching the authorities to intervene. And, most of the lower-level bureaucracies are reluctant to implement legislation that prohibits bonded labor as they fear a backlash from the local landlords and contractors.

Our Indian political parties, who claim the empathy for all these bonded, poor people mostly spend their energy in talking about how they should address this, or else complain that it is a global conspiracy against India to showcase it as a land filled with slums. Modern slavery is thriving in lot of under-developed countries or in totalitarian governments, but it is a shame to let it continue in a democratic nation like India. This ‘stain on humanity’ must be exposed for what it is.



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