Bonded Child Labour

Definition of Bonded Child Labour

The South Asian Task Force on Bonded Child Labour defines a bonded child labourer as “a child (below 18 years of age as defined in the UNCRC) working against debt taken by himself/herself or his/her family members, or working against any social obligation (e.g., caste factor, ethnic or religious practices, etc.) without or with the child’s consent, under conditions that restrain his/her freedom and develop-ment, making him/her vulnerable to physical and other forms of abuse and depriving him/her of his/ her basic rights.”

Bonded labour system is a modern form of slavery, which combines feudal values, traditions and practices, with contemporary exploitative labour relations. Almost all South Asian societies bear the brunt of this, one way or the other. However it is more prevalent in India, Pakistan and Nepal.

As families are bonded, so are children. Societies, which accept bonded labour as something normal, perceive child servitude as a matter of normal life rationalised by poverty, illiteracy and socio-economic back-wardness. Child labour is firmly embedded in the socio-cultural life of South Asian societies. For unscrupulous employers, maintaining child labour even amounts to social pride and prestige. But the children are denied of basic human rights and dignity including freedom of movement, opportunities of education, development and recreation. They are just forced to work long hours, in unhealthy working and living conditions, meted with ill treatment and denied wages and remunerations.

Millions of children in South Asia, particularly in India, Pakistan and Nepal, are born in bondage because their parents were engaged as bonded labourers to their masters or landlords in lieu of some loans or debt. Others become bonded labourers as their naive parents are given some amount of money as advance at the time of recruitment of the child and are promised that the child will lead a decent life so that the advance could be easily paid off. Once trapped in to the system, there is no way out for the child.

Roots of Bonded Child Labour

The South Asian Task Force on Bonded Child Labour believes that bonded child labour is a violation of children’s rights and human rights. It violates human dignity. It hinders holistic development and healthy competition in society. It fuels poverty, violence, adult unemployment, illiteracy, population growth, ill health and socio-economic inequalities.

The Task Force believes that the root causes of bonded child labour are caste and racial discrimination, feudal system that still prevails in agricultural communities, ignorance and illiteracy, and liberal use of cheap labour in production processes which are aggravated by anti-people development paradigms, environmental degradation, lack of political will for effective social change, inadequate legislative framework and ineffective enforcement of policies, lack of meaningful and quality education, inadequate living wages, gender discrimination, absence of child oriented family and social values, and the prevalence of the education systems that perpetuate social inequalities and injustices.

Sectors holding (or are prone to) bonded labour:

Nepal: widespread in agriculture, in western terai in particular; in brick kilns, carpet industry, plantation, domestic work, etc.

India: in agriculture, gem industry, carpet industry, match and firework industry; in silk weaving, flower growing, silver work, bidi rolling; in the manufacturing of brassware, footwear, bangles; in brick kilns, domestic work, stone quarries; and in the industry that produces locks.

Pakistan: in agriculture, domestic work, football industry, carpet industry; in brick kilns; in shoe making, stone/brick crushing; in power looms, etc.

Bonded Child Labour is also...

...referred to as child servitude and child debt bondage, this form of exploitation of child’s work and well being exists in Asia, closely linked to trafficking of children in many situations, and more extensively rooted in socio-cultural and political structures in parts of South Asia. In many cases, bonded children are delivered in repayment of a loan or other favours given in advance, real or imaginary, usually to the parents or to the guardians of the child. Children work like slaves in the process, never knowing when their debt will finally be considered paid. In countries where the caste system or similar forms of social stratification still prevails, namely in India, Nepal, and Pakistan, families and children of the dalits, or kamaiyas, and other sectors considered as low castes are still found in relationships of bondage to landowners, and to upper caste inspite of existing laws that prohibit slavery in all three countries. Bonded child labour in South Asia is found in agriculture, domestic work, brick klins, glass industries, tanneries, gem polishing, and many other manufacturing and marketing industries.


Slavery is...

is the status or condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised. (Article 1: Slavery Convention 1926)


Debt bondage is...

the status or condition arising from a pledge by a debtor of his personal services or of those of a person under his control as security for a debt, if the value of those services as reasonably assessed is not applied towards the liquidation of the debt or the length and nature of those services are not respectively limited and defined. (UN Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade and Institutions and practices Similar to Slavery, 1956)

The Challenges Ahead

Integrating interventions

Bonded child labour is a problem defined by the social, cultural and politi-cal histories of a particular community. This issue is complex, and the fight against it needs an integrated approach and multi-pronged strategy. Piece-meal works, which are in place now, are not going to improve the lives of those suffering. As we realise after interacting with freed bonded labourers in Nepal and the children in Mukti Ashram in India, interventions remain incomplete unless land, parents , employment, education, health and gen-der issues are tackled simultaneously.

Law enforcement

Inadequate laws are a problem, as in Nepal. Non-implementation is another as in India. Comprehensive laws exist in India and Pakistan, but the problem perpetuates in lack of enforcement mechanisms or the lengthy or costly provisions required to go through. Law enforcement calls for a strong political will of the States and vigilance among civil society members

Involving communities in policymaking

In national policy-making, community knowledge aspirations are rarely respected. Community institu-tions, such as VDCs or panchayats, must be properly involved in making policies about their own commu-nities. When the VDCs were not involved in making decisions and plans about the freedom of kamaiyas in Nepal, the result was chaos. Many kamaiyas found themselves pushed to the jungles. The VDCs had sound proposals to make and were enthusiastic to be involved but did not find the opportunity. Promoting respect for community knowledge and the people’s right to be key actors in their own development is a big challenge in South Asia.

Capacity building of local institutions

The other challenge lies in the capacity building of local institutions, including elected bodies, in governance, research, documentation, problem solving and handling emergencies. In particular, they need improved skills and resources to respond to the needs of freed bonded child labourers: estab-lishing schools, counselling, vocational training, health services, etc.

Building links with organisations working in the communities

Scattered across the region are hundreds of small grassroots NGOs directly working on the prob-lems confronting bonded children and their families. It is important to locate them and build links across the region to tap on the wealth of human resources, initiatives, and lessons these small groups have generated. Together, these small grassroots groups could mobilise societies towards ending the bondage of children and community.

Fighting intellectual indifference

Also profiting from debt-bondage are educated bureaucrats, policymakers, middlemen and rich lead-ers. There is a need to strengthen the moral resolve of people in government and other powerful sectors to end debt bondage.

Placing children at the core of our actions

Children are vulnerable, but at the same time, children, even those in bondage have strengths and power that when harnessed could serve as a force for generating social support and making libera-tion and development truly possible. Reaching the bonded children in many communities where they mostly remain hidden by their workplaces and by their status in society is a big challenge. Helping them recognise their value and strength as persons, build dreams, and reach for these dreams with confidence is a huge task that demand focused attention.  
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