Prevalence of Bonded Labour in India

Context: Recent cases of rescue of bonded labourers from Karnataka

What is bonded labour?

Bonded labour is generally described as a type of forced labour and is also known as debt bondage or debt labour. It occurs when a person is forced to use their physical labour to pay off a debt.

According to the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act (BLSAA), 1976, there are three elements that go into making a labour situation bonded:

  • Being under an obligation such as repayment of loan;
  • Meeting the obligation (that is, repaying the loan) through unpaid or underpaid labour or service;
  • Having no freedom to escape the obligation.

Bonded Labour results in loss of freedom in different forms such as:

  • Loss of freedom for employment or alternative employment opportunities in order to earn a decent livelihood.
  • Loss of freedom to earn minimum wage regarding a planned employment as notified by the Government.
  • Loss of freedom to migrate from one part of the country to another.
  • Loss of freedom to sell any products in the market or even the labour of any of his family member dependent upon him.

Note:Forced labour refers to situations in which persons are coerced to work through the use of violence orintimidation, or by more subtle means such as accumulated debt, retention of identity papers etc.

Prevalence of Bonded Labour in India

  • According to International Labour Organization there were 1.17 crores bonded labourers in 2014.
  • The most current available data from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) indicate that there were 8,132 reported cases of human trafficking across India in 2016.
  • Bonded labour is mostly prevalent in agricultural sector, informal sector including cotton textile handlooms, brick kilns, construction work, brothels, stone quarries, carpet weaving, bidi rolling, rearing of silk cocoons, production of silk sarees, silver jewellery, synthetic gemstones, precious gem cutting, leather products, domestic help etc.
  • Thelow-income states such as Jharkhand, Odisha, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, and Madhya Pradeshare more vulnerable to prevalence of bonded labour. A large number of bonded labourers are also rescued every year from Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.

Global Slavery Index, 2018:

  • It estimates that on any given day in 2016 there were nearly 8 million people living in “modern slavery” in India
  • The report said that in terms of prevalence, there were 6.1 victims for every thousand people. India has been ranked 53 out of 167 countries.
  • Global status:
  • North Korea topped the Global Slavery Index with 104.6 per 1,000 prevalence rate and Japan ranked lowest registering a prevalence rate of 03. Per 1,000.
  • Globally, 71% of modern slavery’s victims are women and girls.

Note: Modern Slavery includes individuals being exploited for the purpose of sexual exploitation, forced labour, forced marriage, domestic servitude, and forced criminality.

Global Slavery Index
• The Global Slavery Index is a global study of modern slavery conditions by country published by the Walk Free Foundation
India’s Views on Index
• The Indian government had questioned the definition of forced labour used in the Global Slavery Index as it does not take into account the diverse socio-economic parameters in India. Further, the sample size for interviews and the questions posed to those surveyed were also criticised.


Causes of Prevalence of Bonded Labour in India

  1. Economic causes:

a) Chronic Poverty and Inequality: Widespread chronic poverty and socio-economic inequality is the prime cause behind prevalence of bonded labour which often takes up an inter-generational form of bonded labour.

b) Landlessness:Having no property or possessions of their own to sell when money is needed can result in families relying on landlords to help them cover medical costs or other important expenses, and serving them as bonded labourers to repay back.

c) Lack of access to formal credit: In the absence of formal credit, rural poor are forced to approach money lenders who then exploit illiterate rural poor into debt bondage which at times turn inter-generational.

d) Informal economy: More than 90% of India’s total workforce are engaged in the informal economy Lack of formal employment opportunities leads individuals to seek employment in the informal sector where withholding of wages, debt bondage, and physical and sexual abuse at the workplace are common.

2. Migration:

  • Search for better economic and employment opportunities acts as a powerful incentive for people to migrate from low to high income states and poor rural migrants are most vulnerable to bonded labour in urban areas.
  • A lack of official identity documents increases internal migrant workers’ vulnerability to bondage and exploitation.
  • Also, the children of migrant workers are vulnerable due to lack of access to education and end up working at sites where their parents works
  1. Social-causes:

a) Caste-based discrimination: Social stigmatisation and economic marginalisation of lower castes and Dalits have led to unequal power dynamics between marginalised and dominant groups and resulted in poor low caste and tribal people being more vulnerable to exploitation and debt bondage.

b) Lack of concrete social welfare schemes to safeguard against hunger and illness has compelled poor people to take loans from informal sources, often leading to debt bondage.

c) Education: The prevailing educational infrastructure is highly unsuitable to children of economically deprived families who often fall into the trap of bonded labour

d) High expenses on occasions like marriage and dowry, death, birth of a child, etc. also lead to heavy debts

Sumangali Scheme:
• The Sumangali scheme, is a form of forced labour in India which started in 1989 particularly the textile industry in Tamil Nadu.
• The scheme is also known as “marriage assistance system” and is supposed to be a source to collect money for dowry.
• Under the scheme, girls’ parents, usually poor and from the lower castes, are persuaded by brokers to sign up their daughters to be employed at a garment and textile factories. The scheme promises a bulk of money after the completion of a three-year contract working in the factory


Constitutional safeguards and measures taken to combat prevalence of bonded labour

Constitutional Safeguards

  1. Article 19 (1) g enables an individual to practice any trade, profession, and employment of their choice.
  2. Article 21 guarantees a right to life and personal liberty. Also no person or authority can own a life of another human being. The practice of bonded labour violates all constitutionally mandated rights.
  3. Article 23 prohibits the practices like beggar, forced labour and human trafficking. The term beggar may mean labour or service provided by the person with less or no remuneration.
  4. Article 24 prohibits employment of children whether bonded or otherwise.
  5. Article 39 requires the State to “direct its policy towards securing”:
  • Economic necessity of workers,
  • Personality development of children and youth.
  • Protection against all forms of exploitation. 
Important Supreme Court Judgements:
1. Neerja Chaudhury v. State of Madhya Pradesh: The SC observed that that bonded labourers must be identified and released and on release, they must be suitably rehabilitated. Any failure of action on the part of the State Governments in implementing the provisions of the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act would amount to violation of Article 21 and Article 23 of the Constitution.
2. People’s Union for Democratic Rights v. Union of India: The SC observed that where a person provides labour or service to another for remuneration which is less than minimum wage, the labour or service provided by him clearly falls within the scope and ambit of the word `forced labour’


Legal Provisions

  1. Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976 is an extension to article 23 of the Indian constitution. The Act intends to free all bonded labourers, cancel their debts, establish rehabilitative measures and punish the offender through imprisonment and fine.
  2. The Minimum Wages Act (1948) – This law sets the standard amount of wages to be paid to labourers. The Act also covers the time frame which has to be set for the workers, which involves overtime, necessary breaks, necessary leaves and other facilities for the workers
  3. Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act, 1970 is enacted to introduce better working conditions and minimize exploitation of contract labourers. Also the Act enjoins joint and several responsibilities on the principal employer and contractor.
  4. Interstate migrant workmen (regulation and employment conditions of service) Act, 1979 was enacted to regulate the working conditions of inter-state labourers in Indian labour law.
  5. Indian Penal Code: Under Section 370, Unlawful compulsory labour is prohibited
  6. Child Labour (Prohibition & Regulation) Act, 1986 and Amendment in 2016: It prohibits the engagement of children in certain employments and regulates the conditions of work of children in certain other employments
  7. Trafficking of Persons Bill 2018: Itmakes special note of trafficking for the purpose of forced labour, and categorises it as an aggravated form of trafficking
  8. Draft Domestic Workers Regulation of Work and Social Security Bill 2016: It is prepared by the National Platform for Domestic workers. It seeks to extend existing labour laws to cover domestic workers and ensure that they are entitled to the minimum wage and to access social security


  1. Rehabilitation of Bonded Labour Scheme, 2016: The salient features of the scheme are:
  • Financial assistance of Rs. 1 lakh is provided for rehabilitation of a rescued adult male bonded labourer and 2 lakh for rescued child bonded labourer
  • The Scheme also provides for financial assistance of Rs. 4.50 lakh per district to the States for conducting survey of bonded labourers, Rs. 1 Lakh for evaluatory studies and Rs. 10 Lakhs per State per annum for awareness generation
  1. Ujjawala scheme:Initiated by the Ministry of Women and Child Development, the scheme provides shelter and rehabilitation for female victims of trafficking

Challenges in addressing the issue of bonded labour:

  1. Poor Surveys: There has been no government-led nationwide survey since 1978, despite each district having been given ₹4.5 lakh for such surveys
  2. Data: The government statistics on bonded labour is based on rescue and rehabilitation numbers. Such statistics do not properly reflect the extent of prevalence of bonded labour in India.
  3. Under-reporting of cases:National Crime Records Bureau data show that not all cases are reported by the police. Between 2014 and 2016, they recorded just 1,338 victims, with 290 police cases filed
  4. Poor Implementation of Laws and corruption:
  • Inefficient law enforcement is one of the reasons why bonded labour continues to be a problem in India.
  • The International Labour Organisation has observed that district-level Vigilance Committees meant to identify and rehabilitate bonded labourers do not take their duties seriously enough
  • Further, cases against employers are dropped in favour of settlements made out of court
  1. Lack of awareness among workers:The bonded Labourers are not aware of the legislation and report to the authorities only when it becomes overtly violent.
  2. Issues with rehabilitation: there are a range of practical challenges to the rescue and rehabilitation of bonded labourers including child labourers. These include failure to provide adequate reintegration services, a lack of human and financial resources, limited organisational accountability, and poorly structured partnerships between NGOs and government

India’s International Obligations

  1. Convention on the suppression of slave trade and slavery, 1926
  2. International covenant on civil and political rights (I.C.C.P.R), 1966– It prohibits slavery and slave trade in all their forms, servitudes, and forced or compulsory labour.
  3. Convention on rights of child, 1989- It recognizes the right of a child to be protected from economic exploitation
  4. ILO convention on abolition of Forced Labour
  5. The Indian govt. also ratified two core ILO conventions in 2017, namely No. 138 on Minimum Age to Employment and No. 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labour
  6. The SDG 8.7 : It calls for immediate and effective measures to eradicate forced labour, end modern slavery and human trafficking, and secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labour, including recruitment and use of child soldiers, and by 2025 end child labour in all its forms

Way Forward:

  1. Concerted efforts must be made to create a database of bonded labourers by conducting periodic surveys.
  2. A preventive approach should be taken to address bonded labour. It is important to reduce the conditions that perpetuate bondage for example by providing decent work, education, access to formal credit and by removing possible elements of bondage and coercion in the worker-employer relationship.
  3. Robust inter-state coordination mechanisms is required to address the issues of migrant Provisions should be made workplace improvements and linking them to social security schemes
  4. Measures should be taken to improve the implementation of the Bonded Labour abolition act. Further, bonded labour cases should be tackled in fast track courts and justice should be provided to the labourers
  5. It is important to strengthen the role of the National Human Rights Committee (NHRC) as an independent government body to oversee and coordinate India’s response to all forms of modern slavery.
  6. Corporate Social Responsibility: Private companies can be encouraged to fund local initiatives and NGOs which are combatting forced and bonded labour and providing victim services, as part of the fulfilment of the CSR requirements under the 2013 Companies Act.
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