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.
During the CNN coverage of my last major research trip for my new book on bonded labor, I wrote an article about my findings of debt bondage, human trafficking, and child labor in several construction projects for the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi.
Thousands of workers had been trafficked into Delhi by labor contractors to complete the massive construction projects for the Games at minimal cost.
These findings proved consistent with much of the construction sector across South Asia.
In fact, the labor conditions for the Commonwealth Games in 2010 were shockingly similar to those almost 30 years earlier when New Delhi hosted the Asian Games.
Those games became the subject of the first ever Supreme Court Case in India relating to bonded labor, People’s Union for Democratic Rights vs. Union of India and Others, 1982. Despite a resounding denouncement by the court against bonded labor, three decades later, little had changed.
Construction, like many other industries in South Asia, promotes exploitation by virtue of apathy, custom, corruption, and greed. There is also a particular impunity built into the system of construction labor contracting that is especially effective at promoting trafficking and bondage.
After winning a bid for a project, major construction companies often subcontract the labor recruitment and management to jamadars. These are labor recruiters who offer advances to peasants across India in exchange for working on the project.
Entire families can be recruited with the promise of good wages and conditions, but on arrival, the laborers can be severely exploited.
The jamadar pockets the funds he is supposed to disburse for wages, shelter, food, and medicine, and then typically kicks some of this back to the construction company that hired him.
The laws across South Asia relating to the concept of vicarious liability do not capture the relationship between a construction company and its independent contractors, so it is very difficult to hold the companies liable for the behavior of their subcontractors. As a result, construction workers often suffer extreme abuse.
“We are treated like cockroaches,” a laborer named Rashmi told me, “It is not just the jamadars—the government has betrayed the people. We are like dogs in the street scrounging for food and shelter. They promise us wages, but we have been here five months with no wages and barely enough food to eat. I feel no human dignity.”
Two sectors that feed directly into the construction sector - stones and bricks - are just as exploitative as construction.
Millions of the most destitute peasants in South Asia are recruited each year into back-breaking work bashing stones or baking bricks to be used in construction projects.
In the city of Faridabad, I documented bonded laborers who hammered away at giant granite boulders in the same quarries that were the subject of the second Supreme Court case in India that dealt with bonded labor: Bandhua Mukti Morcha vs. Union of India and Others, 1983.
Despite a blistering indictment by the court, 30 years later many of the same conditions of bondage remained.
With bricks, peasants work 14 or more hours a day in highly dangerous conditions baking bricks in a kiln that seethes at 1000+ degrees Celsius.
The peasants often migrate to the kilns each year, perpetually seeking to pay off loans that almost always seem to grow.
When a bonded laborer named Gurahu attempted to flee from his insurmountable debts, the brick owner’s men tracked him down, punished him with electric shocks, and sold his daughter to a trafficker as punishment.
“I could not believe God had done this,” Gurahu told me. “I wanted to take my life. You cannot imagine how much pain I felt. I never saw my daughter again.”
The sub-human working conditions and barbaric exploitation inherent to the system of bonded labor remains a shameful scar on the face of South Asia. My final article will detail how we might bring these injustices to an end.