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.