Bonded labour is a relation between the employer and the employee by the use of force. The labourer is forced by factors like debt, poverty, landlessness etc to work conditionally for an employer. The employee does not get any safeguards provided by law and is in a condition peculiar to a slave. Though bonded labour has been abolished in India vide The Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976, it still exists and in abundance.
Causes of bonded labour
If bonded labour was part of the feudal system in the earlier days, the main cause behind the existence of this evil these days is socio-economic in nature. Poverty, unemployment, ignorance, assetlessness, lack of organization etc are some of the causes.
A crisis in the family caused by the sudden death of the lone earning member or loss caused due to natural calamities forces a person, and in some cases the whole family, to accept any job opportunity that comes in their way. They fall easy prey to traffickers and employers looking for cheaper or free and unconditional labour.
Interstate migration is also believed to play a major role in keeping alive the tradition of bonded labour. People who are new to places face many risks and may not be in a position to bargain for the safeguards available to them. Their helplessness is often exploited by middlemen and the employers.
The most important cause, however, is debt related. People, who borrow money in times of emergency, find it difficult to repay the same and opt for service in lieu of money. This relationship lasts for long and sometimes even continues to generations because of the high rate of interest rates which ensures that the labourer will never be able to close his account. He is trapped in a vicious circle from which it becomes almost impossible for him to escape. A reason supplementing this relation is the ignorance of the labourer about the avenues open to him. Also, being a debtor, he feels helpless to question any act on the part of the employer. The labourers are literally kept under bondage and therefore they are not in a position to organize or complain.
Failure of the Government machineries to track down and prevent bonded labour is also a cause for the persistence of this evil. This is mainly due to the non co-operation on the part of the labourers who due to fear or ignorance does not come out with the truth and most of the time, turn hostile.
As per a government report, there is an estimated number of 2, 89, 327 bonded labourers in India. There are independent surveys quoting higher numbers, but they have been sidelined due to various reasons like not being reliable etc. People from remote areas of Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Odisha, Haryana, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Madhya Pradesh are said to be the most affected.
Bonded labour is prominently visible in unorganized sectors like small time farmers, landless agricultural labourers, unskilled workers, saw mills, carpet weaving, illegal mining etc.
Safeguards available to a labourer.
Article 39 of the Indian Constitution states that the State shall direct its policy towards securing-
a) that the citizens, men and women equally, have the right to an adequate means to livelihood;
d) that there is equal pay for equal work for both men and women;
e) that the health and strength of workers, men and women, and the tender age of children are not abused and that citizens are not forced by economic necessity to enter avocations unsuited to their age or strength.
Article 42 provides for just and humane conditions of work and maternity relief.
In addition to the safeguards provided by the Constitution, there are many laws which have been legislated with an aim to prevent exploitation and ensure protection of rights to labourers. Some of them are-
1) The Workmen's Compensation Act, 1923,
2) The Payment of Wages Act, 1936,
3) The Minimum Wages Act, 1948 and,
4) The Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976.
The BLS (A) Act, among other provisions, not only abolished the bonded labour system but also extinguished the liability of a labourer to repay bonded debt and also provided that the freed bonded labourer should not be evicted from any homestead or residential place where he was residing as part of the consideration for bonded labour. It is also to be noted that this Act was enacted with retrospective effect.
The responsibility to rehabilitate bonded labourers lies primarily with the State governments. The various awareness campaigns, anti-poverty programs, sensitization etc have helped in reducing the numbers of bonded labourers to a considerable extend. But much more need to be done on this issue. As pointed out earlier, the State machinery will be able to produce better results only with the co-operation of the labourers.
It is for both, the Central and State governments to ensure that the laws framed to regulate and monitor employer-employee relations and those pertaining to the welfare of the employees are strictly implemented.
To engage a person in bonded labour is a crime and is a clear violation of human rights. The National Human Rights Commission and the Supreme Court vide various decisions has laid down guidelines to be followed in tackling this evil. There are also many NGOs working in this field. Only a concerted effort by all would enable better results. The State governments must take due steps to annihilate the causes that lead a person to, knowingly or unknowingly, submit himself to the physical and mental cruelty involved in bonded labour.