Yan: More subtle today, slavery still exists

Slavery has gone underground. One particularly antiquated form of modern-day slavery is bonded labor, also known as debt bondage or debt servitude.

The International Labour Organization defines bonded labor as a “system whereby people are required to repay a debt by working for their creditors,” much like indentured servitude. An employer advances a loan to the laborer (to pay for weddings, funerals, medical expenses etc.) and requires the laborer to repay the debt by working for the employer. While on paper this seems like a contractual agreement, in reality bonded labor is an exploitative practice that shackles marginalized, poor laborers into greater and greater debt.

According to the ILO, debt bondage is most common in India, Nepal and Pakistan. While bonded laborers have historically worked mostly in agriculture, new forms of bonded labor have increasingly appeared in sectors like brick manufacturing, sweatshops, textile manufacturing, mining and domestic work.

Laborers can’t pay off their debts because their creditors/employers pay them barely subsistence wages, with little or nothing left over to repay the debt. Employers charge exorbitant interest rates, include recruitment, transportation and food costs for relocating laborers to work sites, and are the sole record-keepers. This, combined with the illiteracy of many bonded laborers, creates an exploitative situation in which employers easily violate or ignore contract terms and use “debt repayment” as coercion to keep laborers working. Thus debts are sometimes passed down as “family inheritances,” with children working to pay what their parents could not.

Bonded labor, like many humanitarian issues, is intimately connected with a host of other societal ills. Laborers are what Anti-Slavery International calls chronically poor, for they suffer from “a combination of material deprivation (income), capability deprivation (ill health, lack of skills, education) and vulnerability,” according to the organization’s Web site. This poverty is closely correlated with landlessness in rural areas, as those who have no land to live off are forced to find other means of sustenance. In addition, as entire families must often work to repay debt, children of bonded laborers seldom have the chance to receive an education or develop marketable skills needed to escape unskilled labor.

In India, Nepal and Pakistan, the laborers often belong to the Dalits, the “untouchables” of the lowest caste who have been historically associated with the most menial, degrading and unhygienic jobs, like handling dead animals and cleaning human excrement. Although the caste system has been officially banned in all three countries, discrimination still exists. In Pakistan, many of the laborers are also of religious and ethnic minorities. Discrimination against them therefore further restricts their chances of upward social mobility.

Bonded labor represents the extreme absence of labor rights. The relaxing of labor standards to encourage foreign investment and capital flow associated with globalization can, in extreme cases, encourage bonded labor as a cheap source of manpower. Through their association with the informal and unregulated sector of the economy, bondage laborers share similar vulnerabilities with migrant workers in China and undocumented immigrants in the United States.

Though the three governments of India, Nepal and Pakistan have passed legislation officially banning bonded labor, corruption and lack of commitment have stalled the eradication of the issue. Current plans center on identification of laborers, release of laborers from their debt and rehabilitation to find alternate means of employment. The last part has proved most difficult. Since bonded labor is tied up with many other problems, addressing this type of forced labor requires addressing the other issues as well.

As loan advancements often arise from poverty associated with landlessness, land redistribution to laborers could provide the economic autonomy needed for their freedom. Alternatively, unionization of bonded laborers, the enforcement of a living minimum wage and support from mainstream trade unions would dramatically increase the ability of laborers to repay their debt and earn a decent income above subsistence levels. Education and vocational training of children in bonded labor families is also integral to giving future generations the power to find better jobs and resist exploitation. The International Labour Organization has also implemented a program of micro-finance as an alternate lending source, undermining the monopoly of the current debt creditors.

While the ultimate goal is locally based empowerment of the laborers, the laborers themselves currently wield no power of protest, and the governments and NGOs of India, Nepal and Pakistan are either unable or unwilling to effectively implement the necessary solutions. Thus in these initial stages international pressure must be applied to get anti-bonded labor programs on their feet.

Lily Yan is a junior in Davenport College.


  • Katie

    great column on an important issue, and especially important for advocates of organized labor in this country to remember: this is such an international fight.

  • Hieronymus

    Subtle? Slavery exists outright in, e.g., the Sudan and Guyana. Bangladeshis are bonded in Kuwait (our "ally"; I should also point out that Kuwaitis referred to US military personnel as "our white slaves" during the Gulf War).

    Heck, bonded slavery exists here in the US: google the news for several examples, usually house slaves but also typical bonded servants from the smuggling of illegal immigrants…

    Gee, as I type this, it occurs to me that the above examples--most especially most US cases of bonded slavery--often have something in common…

    Allahu akbar!

    [That said, I should also note the human trafficking most prevalent in Russia and East Europe's porn industry, but as we all know--especially here at Yale--porn is harmless…

    Oh, and you beedi-smoking neo-beatniks? Ya just gotta love those pungent lil ciggies lovingly hand-rolled by Pakistani slave girls…]

    (And, please, spare us the socialist spew regarding "wage slaves" and "impressed persons from post-colonial imperialistic milieux who are forced to assuage America's demand for cheap labor…" oi! Marxist critique of capitalism is so passe now; indeed, outside of Cuba, North Korea, and Ivy League English departments, Marxism is so over.)

  • Hieronymus

    Serious follow up: Lily, what do you propose? Capitalism? Democracy, perhaps?

    Question: Should Western Civ inform debate with regard to developing nations?

    I mean, if all modes are equally valid, shouldn't we just lift up the developing world's "culture" and enjoy our cheap beedis? To do otherwise, to criticize and apply some sort of "normative" ideal would be… assumptive and arrogant, right?

  • Straw Man

    Have your way with me, Hieronymous! Have your way!

  • so what im hearing is

    that freedom is a universal good and that we CAN impose our values on others.


  • Blatant Ad Hominem

    Hieronymus, it's kind of sad to watch you take so much glee in your little ydn.com theatrics. What do you think you're accomplishing? (Hint: "amusing myself" lands you pretty squarely in the category of "troll".)

  • Hieronymus

    Mostly my role is to broaden the usually quite narrow scope of thought on campus. That said, yes, I often find folks' responses amusing.

    Liberal hypocrisy is deeply offensive. Kiddies protesting slave labor while sucking lattes and sporting Nike sneakers and Nokia cellphones is just too funny to pass up.

    To make claims that "bonded servitude" (or whatever) is *bad* while at the same time claiming that everything is relative sets up a dissonance that demands highlighting.

    We cannot protest Islam's violence (cuz that would hurt someone's feelings) but we can apparently agree that slavery is inherently bad, which indicates that at some level everything is NOT relative.

    BTW: the whole slavery thing cracks me up. We must suffer on campus the deeply oppressive tactics of our Marxist professors (and classmates, e.g., the annual Columbus Day fiascos) and made to feel guilty for past crimes


    these same folks will ignore the ONGOING slavery in the Sudan.

    Doesn't this upset you? It should.

    That said, I absolutely admire, e.g., those Feminists with the balls to preach their gospel in, e.g., Saudi Arabia. But for a Yale gal to b*tch about the oppressions womyn at Yale suffer is just. too. much.

    The current article highlights a certain form of human rights abuses, ignores others, and offers not remedy or course of action. It elevates the author ("Look at me! Look how sensitive and Liberal I am!") but does nothing for the purported subject--or subjects or the subjected.

    Trollish enough for ya?

  • Bic

    These are all stereotypes. Just attack an individual's position, not an amalgam of viewpoints you assume every "Liberal" holds. If you're arguing with someone about labor conditions and they're wearing Nikes, bring it up, but it's silly to assume everyone is this way. And just because someone has privileges, it does not mean they must immediately cast all of them off in order to argue for the betterment of others. A person should certainly make changes in his own life, but it's petty to point out every flaw they could remedy as a way of ignoring their argument.
    Moreover, how do you know these stereotypical professors you speak of are ignoring Sudan?
    Also, there is such a thing as degree--just because there are graver problems in the world does not mean one cannot discuss lesser ones. It's fair for women here to discuss sexism in the US, even if it's much worse elsewhere, just as it is reasonable to, say, contribute to research of a disease less deadly than cancer.