October 15th, 2012
01:40 PM ET

Bonded labor stretches from third to first world

Editor's Note: Anti-trafficking expert Siddharth Kara is the author of “Bonded Labor: Tackling the System of Slavery in South Asia,” providing the first comprehensive overview of bonded labor in South Asia.

In September 2010, I met a young girl named Nirmala in the remote western Terai region of Nepal.  Nirmala is one of the thousands of internally trafficked domestic slaves in Nepal, called kamlari, who belong to the outcast Tharu ethnic group.

Agents recruit Tharu girls as young as eight to work as servants in upper-caste homes.  Aside from room and board, the children receive little to no payment for up to 10 years of work.  Kamlari girls often suffer extreme abuse and maltreatment.

“I did all the work,” Nirmala explained, “cooking, cleaning, washing clothes, washing dishes.  I woke each morning at 5 a.m. and went to sleep at 10 p.m. I slept on the floor…I did this work seven days a week. Sometimes the wife would beat me. The husband in the home would rape me.  I did not want to be in that home.”

Nirmala’s situation is representative of a typical South Asian debt bondage arrangement: food and shelter as credit in exchange for slave-like labor exploitation.

The upper classes of Nepal see this arrangement as completely justified because the alternative for a low-caste girl such as Nirmala would be worse: destitution in her village or trafficking to India for forced prostitution.

My new book, “Bonded Labor: Tackling the System of Slavery in South Asia” provides the first comprehensive overview of the unconscionable system of bonded labor in South Asia.

In a series of articles for the CNN Freedom Project, I will describe the system in more detail and outline how we can best tackle this brutish mode of servile labor exploitation.

The issue of bonded labor may receive marginal attention globally, but bonded labor is the most extensive form of slavery in the world today.

There were approximately 18 to 20.5 million bonded laborers in the world at the end of 2011, almost 90% of whom were in South Asia.

This means that approximately half of the slaves in the world are bonded laborers in South Asia.

More importantly, the products made by bonded laborers touch almost every aspect of the global economy, including frozen shrimp and fish, tea, coffee, rice, wheat, diamonds, cubic zirconia, glassware, hand-woven carpets, limestone, salt, cigarettes, apparel, fireworks, sporting goods, and many more products.

Virtually everyone’s life, everywhere in the world, is touched by bonded labor in South Asia.

Bonded labor basically involves the exploitative interlinking of labor and credit agreements between parties.

On one side, a party possessing an abundance of capital and power provides credit, food, or tenancy to the other party, who, because he lacks almost any assets or capital, pledges his labor to work off the loan.

Given the vast power imbalances between the parties, the laborer is often severely exploited.  Bonded labor occurs when the exploitation descends to the level of slave-like abuse.

The borrower is often forced to work at pathetic wage levels to repay the debt. Exorbitant interest rates are charged (up to 20 percent per month), and money lent for future needs is added to the debt.

Sometimes these debts last a few years, and sometimes they are passed on to future generations if the original borrower perishes without having repaid the debt.

Centuries ago, debt bondage existed across the world from the American South to Medieval Europe to Tokugawa Japan. Social revolution and transition to market economies largely dissolved the system throughout the world, except for South Asia.

There, the system persists due to a highly pernicious cocktail of forces, including immense poverty, acute caste and gender discrimination, social apathy, corruption, and a global economy that scours the globe for the lowest cost of production possible.

The desperation of the bonded laborers I met across South Asia is acute.

Anguish to be rid of these debts leads to desperate measures, including the sale of kidneys, the sale of children to human traffickers, or suicide.

For the sake of the millions of outcast and destitute debt bondage slaves in South Asia like Nirmala, the need to eradicate this feudal system of slave-like exploitation could not be greater.

soundoff (34 Responses)
  1. Sam Mendoza

    I felt very sad about all these. I wish i can help them. But me too has my own struggle here in the middle east. But i am trying to fight against my situation and able to handle it. And i help as much as i can in a little way to others who are being maltreated. Because some of the other maids here are too afraid to complain and fight for there right. They need a sympathy and encouragement... Honestly a lot of employers here in Lebanon are very abusive ( physically, or verbally abusing employees specially those who works at homes). Insulting, locking inside homes when employers left home. I have experienced these. But i told my employers that what they are doing is abuse of my right as a human. And if they won't stop doing this i am going to file a complaint against them.

    October 15, 2012 at 3:21 pm | Reply
  2. Preet

    kids need education and gd life ...govt should take full responsibilty or nothing can be changed

    October 16, 2012 at 9:12 am | Reply
  3. Kabita

    Nepal government has taken initiative to eradicate bonded labor especially 'Kamlari System' as mentioned in Teria region. The success story of the Kamlari girl- Shanta Chaudari ( former lawmaker) , who was sold, when she was eight years old can be taken as an example to prevent another Nirmala to be born.

    October 16, 2012 at 10:04 am | Reply
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    October 19, 2012 at 7:28 am | Reply
  5. WorldgoneMad

    This is how the world outside of the west lives. It is not the duty of th west to fix the problems of the rest.
    As more non-westerners invade the west, this becomes more prevalent in the west.
    Watch as the Golden Dawn rises in Greece!!

    October 21, 2012 at 9:58 pm | Reply
    • Equity For All


      Where is your concern for humanity? I am deeply disturbed by your selfish compartmentalisation of human trafficking as not being a western problem (which is absolutely untrue), and, moreover, in turning a blind eye on human suffering.

      It is views like that which you present here that make the world seem as if it has gone mad.

      November 6, 2012 at 7:28 pm | Reply
      • Equity For West

        You are gay

        December 2, 2012 at 10:14 pm |
  6. Totalam Mallikarjun

    I am horrified slavery still exists. I thought since the days of Emancipation proclamation of Lincoln we have come a long way in eradicating this problem. But reading the reports of CNN I feel sad and disillusioned about slavery. The world must UNITE to eradicate the problem of slavery and child labour. The only way is by making UNIVERSAL LAW applicable throughout the world to prevent involuntary servitude. We must punish people severely for being cruel to other human beings wherever they are.

    October 29, 2012 at 7:12 am | Reply
  7. Ajay Shah.

    I am on the view, most of the poor families should get force family planing (Male & Female). Once their population goes down, kids will be respected & financially they will start getting established. Another issue is Supply & Demand. Guys in major urban cities who pay money to exploit young girls have NO personal characters. India has NO Law & Order. So, these worst male population will multiply & time will come when Brazil's slum will compete with India's ranking in worst place to live in world. Politicians are already at the bottom of morality. Original India mother land, Mahatma Gandhi, all other genuine freedom fighters, sorry to tell you that you have wasted your very important & beautiful, highly respectable lives in giving freedom to this country. God bless India.

    November 4, 2012 at 1:22 pm | Reply
  8. R.

    In the west start growing your own food!

    November 25, 2012 at 10:57 am | Reply
    • S.

      Hell Yeah

      December 2, 2012 at 10:15 pm | Reply
    • badidea

      Industrialized countries produce 26 TIMES the amount of food that developed countries do. North America and Europe nearly outproduce the rest of the world combined. Facts are useful.

      December 3, 2012 at 11:23 pm | Reply
  9. robert

    "Given the vast power imbalance".....
    "The borrower is often forced to work at pathetic wages to repay the debt"
    Sounds like signing a mortgage for 30 years a and trying to
    Pay it off....while your property values go down....we the slaves

    December 3, 2012 at 7:09 pm | Reply
  10. robert

    We the slaves to the elite bankers...that is

    December 3, 2012 at 7:10 pm | Reply
  11. Achintya Das

    Bonded Labor is really a very big issues in many Asian countries we are working online as well as in the fields against the wrongdoing of bonded labor committed by landlords and owners. Check this links for more exculsive information.

    Warm Regards,
    Achintya Das ( Administrative Director )
    International Unity For Equality
    Website : http://www.iufe.org/

    February 12, 2013 at 2:25 am | Reply
  12. ESR-WorldPeace

    Bonded labour is a very serious matter in our society that is written all over History. We hope that, in time, this problem may be outcome and that the governments all over the world join forces to stop this barbarity. People should be aware of this reality and fight for this cause.

    March 9, 2013 at 12:10 pm | Reply
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    The problem ultimately boils down to over population. If there are far too many people than the system can do proper justice to then not even God can eliminate such preposterous system to exist. Only long-term solution to such problem is population control in a planned manner. I myself have seen in and around big or small construction sites in Indian cities a bunch of new-born kids lying around uncared for like cats and dogs with no one to bother about them and I really wonder what is in store for them other than such inhuman future?

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