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.