Bonded Child Labor in India

ISBN 1-56432-172-X , September 1996



Shame upon such crimes!
Shame upon us if we do not raise our voices against them!

—Samuel Gompers, U.S. labor activist, 1881

My sister is ten years old. Every morning at seven she goes to the bonded labor man, and every night at nine she comes home. He treats her badly; he hits her if he thinks she is working slowly or if she talks to the other children, he yells at her, he comes looking for her if she is sick and cannot go to work. I feel this is very difficult for her.

I don’t care about school or playing. I don’t care about any of that. All I want is to bring my sister home from the bonded labor man. For 600 rupees I can bring her home—that is our only chance to get her back.

We don’t have 600 rupees . . . we will never have 600 rupees.

—Lakshmi, nine year-old beedi (cigarette) roller, Tamil Nadu. Six hundred rupees is the equivalent of approximately $17.

With credible estimates ranging from 60 to 115 million, India has the largest number of working children in the world. Whether they are sweating in the heat of stone quarries, working in the fields sixteen hours a day, picking rags in city streets, or hidden away as domestic servants, these children endure miserable and difficult lives. They earn little and are abused much. They struggle to make enough to eat and perhaps to help feed their families as well. They do not go to school; more than half of them will never learn the barest skills of literacy. Many of them have been working since the age of four or five, and by the time they reach adulthood they may be irrevocably sick or deformed—they will certainly be exhausted, old men and women by the age of forty, likely to be dead by fifty.

Most or all of these children are working under some form of compulsion, whether from their parents, from the expectations attached to their caste, or from simple economic necessity. At least fifteen million of them, however, are working as virtual slaves. These are the bonded child laborers of India. This report is about them.

“Bonded child labor” refers to the phenomenon of children working in conditions of servitude in order to pay off a debt. The debt that binds them to their employer is incurred not by the children themselves, but by their relatives or guardians—usually by a parent. In India, these debts tend to be relatively modest, ranging on average from 500 rupees to 7,500 rupees, depending on the industry and the age and skill of the child. The creditors-cum-employers offer these “loans” to destitute parents in an effort to secure the labor of a child, which is always cheap, but even cheaper under a situation of bondage. The parents, for their part, accept the loans. Bondage is a traditional worker-employer relationship in India, and the parents need the money—perhaps to pay for the costs of an illness, perhaps to provide a dowry to a marrying child, or perhaps—as is often the case—to help put food on the table.

The children who are sold to these bond masters work long hours over many years in an attempt to pay off these debts. Due to the astronomically high rates of interest charged and the abysmally low wages paid, they are usually unsuccessful. As they reach maturity, some of them may be released by the employer in favor of a newly-indebted and younger child. Many others will pass the debt on, intact or even higher, to a younger sibling, back to a parent, or on to their own children.

The past few years have seen increasing public awareness—in India itself, but particularly in the international arena—of the high incidence of child servitude in the carpet industry of South Asia. As a consequence, the international public has come to associate “child servitude” with the image of small children chained to carpet looms, slaving away over the thousands of tiny wool knots that will eventually become expensive carpets in the homes of the wealthy. International concern for the carpet weavers reached a peak in April 1995, when children’s rights activist Iqbal Masih, a twelve-year-old ex-carpet weaver in Pakistan, was murdered.

This attention and the outrage it has provoked are entirely warranted—the use of bonded child labor in the production of carpets for export is extensive, and conditions in that industry are horrendous. But it is vital that the public’s concern for children in servitude not begin and end with carpets. More than 300,000 children are estimated to be working in the carpet industry, the majority of them in bondage. This is a large number, but it represents only about 2 percent of the bonded child laborers of India.

The great majority of the carpet weavers’ bonded brothers and sisters are working in the agricultural sector, tending cattle and goats, picking tea leaves on vast plantations, and working fields of sugar cane and basic crops all across the country. Apart from agriculture, which accounts for 64 percent of all labor in India, bonded child laborers form a significant part of the work force in a multitude of domestic and export industries. These include, but are not limited to, the production of silk and silk saris, beedi (hand-rolled cigarettes), silver jewelry, synthetic gemstones, leather products (including footwear and sporting goods), handwoven wool carpets, and precious gemstones and diamonds. Services where bonded child labor is prevalent include prostitution, small restaurants, truck stops and tea shop services, and domestic servitude.

The practice of child debt servitude has been illegal in India since 1933, when the Children (Pledging of Labour) Act was enacted under British rule. Since independence, a plethora of additional protective legislation has been put in place. There are distinct laws governing child labor in factories, in commercial establishments, on plantations, and in apprenticeships. There are laws governing the use of migrant labor and contract labor. A relatively recent law—the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act of 1986—designates a child as “a person who has not completed their fourteenth year of age.” It purports to regulate the hours and conditions of some child workers and to prohibit the use of child labor in certain enumerated hazardous industries. (There is no blanket prohibition on the use of child labor, nor any universal minimum age set for child workers.) Most important of all, for children in servitude, is the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976 which strictly outlaws all forms of debt bondage and forced labor. These extensive legal safeguards mean little, however, without the political will to implement them. In India, this will is sorely lacking. All of the labor laws are routinely flouted, and with virtually no risk of punishment to the offender. Whether due to corruption or indifference—and both are much in evidence—these laws are simply not enforced. In those rare cases where offenders are prosecuted, sentences are limited to negligible fines.

Why does India—the Indian government, the ruling elite, the business interests, the populace as a whole—tolerate this slavery in its midst? According to a vast and deeply entrenched set of myths, bonded labor and child labor in India are inevitable. They are caused by poverty. They represent the natural order of things, and it is not possible to change them by force; they must evolve slowly toward eradication.

In truth, the Indian government has failed to protect its most vulnerable children. When others have stepped in to try to fill the vacuum and advocate on behalf of those children, India’s leaders and much of its media have attributed nearly all “outside” attempts at action to an ulterior commercial motive. The developed world is not concerned with Indian children, this view holds, but rather with maintaining a competitive lead in the global marketplace. Holding to this defensive stance, some officials have threatened to end all foreign funding of child labor-related projects.

This nationalist rhetoric has been largely a diversionary tactic. What the government has hoped to hide is the news that, no matter how the data are analyzed, official efforts to end the exploitation of child laborers are woefully deficient. Former Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao, for example, made much of his initiative, announced in 1994, to bring two million children out of hazardous employment by the year 2000. Two million represents only 1.7 to 3.3 percent of the nation’s child laborers; the fate of the other 58 to 113 million children was not addressed. In a welcome move, the United Front government, elected in May 1996, has promised to eradicate child labor in all occupations and industries, and has stated that the right to free compulsory elementary education should be made a fundamental right and enforced through suitable statutory measures. It remains to be seen what measures the government will take to fulfill these promises.

By focusing primarily on child labor in export industries and the threat of sanctions on exports, the international community has sent the unfortunate message that only child labor in export industries must be addressed. In response, the Indian government has accused its international critics of protectionism and has adopted superficial remedies designed to assuage their concerns while continuing to ignore its legal obligation to identify, release and rehabilitate bonded laborers.

Multilateral lending institutions have failed in their obligations as well. By neglecting to ensure that the projects they fund do not involve the use of bonded child labor, they have exacerbated the problem of bonded child labor. These institutions, and their funders should take every measure to ensure that aid does not result in child slavery.

This report, based on two months of field investigations, reveals only a glimpse of the vast suffering caused by the bonded labor system. This glimpse alone, however, is proof enough that it is time for India’s new government to accept responsibility for the slavery in its midst, to admit that it is not inevitable, and to end it. India is the world’s largest democracy, a nuclear power, the world’s second most populous country, and, although a poor nation, one of the six largest economies of the world. It is possible to end child servitude. The only thing lacking is will.

This report is the result of an investigation conducted by two Human Rights Watch researchers from November 1995 to January 1996. More than one hundred bonded child laborers were interviewed. Children were chosen for interviews on the basis of their willingness and ability to speak freely with researchers; no interviews were conducted in the presence of employers or in circumstances that presented the risk of retaliation. In addition to the children, Human Rights Watch spoke with more than fifty government officials, employers, social workers, community activists, attorneys, and religious leaders. Some of the government officials interviewed requested that their comments be kept off the record and many human rights activists requested anonymity. These requests, which highlight the sensitive nature of the issue of child bondage, have been honored. The investigation took place in the states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, and Uttar Pradesh.

While India leads the world in the number of bonded child laborers, debt servitude is a significant problem in Pakistan and Nepal as well. Nor are contemporary forms of slavery confined to South Asia; previous Human Rights Watch reports have documented forced labor in Kuwait, Brazil, Thailand, and the Dominican Republic. Regarding India, a prior Human Rights Watch report documented slavery-like conditions in Bombay brothels.


Recommendations to the Government of India
The government of India should demonstrate its commitment to the eradication of bonded child labor by implementing the following recommendations at the earliest possible date:

General Recommendations
Design and implement a multi-pronged effort to end bonded child labor, composed of both persuasive and mandatory means. At a minimum, this effort should include stepped-up enforcement efforts, free, compulsory, and quality public education, and financial support for children to go to school.

Implement measures designed to bring current practice into compliance with Article 45 of the constitution which mandates free and compulsory education for all children up to fourteen years of age.

Pressure states and districts to constitute and oversee bonded labor vigilance committees, as required by the Bonded Labour (System) Abolition Act, 1976. Ensure that a sufficient number of investigators can be included in the committee to guarantee implementation of the act. Given the massive numbers of children involved, nongovernmental organization (NGO) representatives, lawyers, social workers, teachers, civil servants, and others with ties to bonded laborers and their families should be enlisted as investigators. Provide in-depth training to district officials charged with enforcing the act, as directed by the Supreme Court in Neeraja Chaudhary v. State of Madhya Pradesh, 1984.

Establish an independent monitoring agency at the state and national level to oversee the enforcement of the Bonded Labour (System Abolition) Act, 1976. For full implementation of the Act, this body should be statutorily empowered to receive and address complaints of Act violations and complaints of official misconduct. It should also be able to file First Information Reports (FIRs), the first step in prosecution of a criminal charge, when bonded child laborers are identified.

Establish a similar independent monitoring agency to oversee the enforcement of the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986.

Ensure the active involvement of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Commission in the process of identifying, releasing, and rehabilitating bonded child laborers.

Establish and make public a master list or national register of children released from bondage, including how they were rehabilitated (provided with schooling, vocational training, or other alternative measures).

Establish and make public a master list or national register of people prosecuted under the Bonded Labour (System Abolition) Act, 1976 and the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986 and include information on the nature of sentences given to guilty parties.

Establish and make public up-to-date and accurate information regarding the incidence and distribution of bonded child laborers, and the industries in which such children work.

Investigate the abuse and exploitation of children by agents and employers, and prosecute such agents and employers under the relevant domestic law such as Chapter VI of the Juvenile Justice Act, or Chapter XVI of the Indian Penal Code.

Condition all entitlements, subsidies, special tax allowances, and other concessions currently extended to industries that employ bonded child labor on compliance with the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976 and other relevant laws.

Condition all new subsidies and incentives on industry compliance with applicable domestic laws banning bonded labor.

Launch a nationwide public awareness campaign regarding the legal prohibition of bonded child labor. This campaign should explain in simple terms what actions are legally prohibited and what recourses and resources are available to bonded child laborers and their families.

Amend relevant legislation, including the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, to bring it into compliance with the requirements of the Indian Constitution.

Add to the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act and the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act additional punishments for violators, including forfeiture of operating licenses, seizure of manufacturing equipment, and short and long-term closure of plants. Amend the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976 to significantly increase fines and allow the fines to be paid as compensation to the freed bonded laborers. Amend Section 10 to require all employers to have and show on demand proof of age of all children working on their premises. Failure to have adequate proof should constitute a separate violation of the act. In the event of a dispute regarding a child’s age, the burden of proof should be on the employer to prove that the child is above the age of fourteen years.

Amend the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986 so that household enterprises and government schools and training centers are no longer exempted for prohibitions on employing children; rules formulated by the central government will apply until replaced by rules formulated by the states themselves; and coverage under the act should be expanded to include agriculture and informal sectors.

Amend the Beedi and Cigar Workers Act so that exemptions for household-based production are eliminated.

Amend the Children (Pledging of Labour) Act so that fines to employers, agents, and creditors are increased, the funds collected are contributed to the compensation and rehabilitation of the children exploited; imprisonment as a sentencing alternative is added; and specify which governmental department is responsible for enforcement of this act.

Amend the Factories Act to cover all factories or workshops employing child labor, not just those with twenty or more workers, or ten or more workers where power is used.

Meet International Labour Organisation norms of one Ministry of Labour inspector for every 150 factories and establishments.

Amend the Trade Union Act to allow children to form and participate in trade unions as an interim measure pending the elimination of bonded child labor. The Convention on the Rights of the Child, which India has ratified guarantees the children the right of freedom of association.

Promptly submit the Indian government’s report on compliance with the Convention on the Rights of the Child to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, as this has been overdue for more than one year.

Continue cooperation with international organizations working to abolish bonded child labor, in particular the International Labour Organisation’s International Programme to Eliminate Child Labour.

Recommendations to United Nations Agencies
The United Nations Working Group on Contemporary Forms of Slavery should press the United Nations Human Rights Commission to examine the government of India’s compliance with international laws and standards outlawing bonded labor, and to censure non-compliance. As a step toward ending bonded labor in India, Human Rights Watch recommends that the working group undertake a fact-finding mission to India and make recommendations designed to eliminate bonded labor.

The ILO should send a technical mission to India to make recommendations with the understanding that India would develop an action plan for abolishing bonded child labor over a specific time period, either through the International Program to Eliminate Child Labor (IPEC) or other ILO programs.

UNICEF should make the elimination of bonded child labor a stated priority of its efforts in India and elsewhere. It should formulate a consistent institutional policy regarding bonded child labor, and work with local, state, and national government officials toward the achievement of the stated goals.

WHO should investigate and publicize the adverse health consequences for children of bonded child labor, and promote measures to eliminate the exposure of children to hazardous conditions and labor practices.

WHO should formulate a policy on the elimination of bonded child labor, and collaborate with other UN agencies toward this end.

Recommendations to the World Bank and Other International Lending Institutions
Condition receipt of loans and other subsidies on verified compliance with all domestic legal prohibitions on the use of bonded and child labor.

Suspend the flow of aid to the sericulture (silk) industry until the government of India has taken concrete steps to identify, eradicate, and rehabilitate children in bondage.

Prior to approval of projects, investigate the effect of proposed policies and programs on the incidence of child servitude.

Provide funding for a program with NGOs and the Indian government to effectively implement India’s Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, and to assist in identifying, releasing, and rehabilitating bonded child laborers, with a priority on industries which have previously received aid. Establish an institutionalized mechanism for incorporating local NGO ideas and opinions into projects at all stages of the decision making process—before a loan is released, while the project is being implemented, and in the course of any post-project evaluation.

Recommendations to the International Community
India’s international donors should suspend funding for any projects, such as sericulture, that are known to employ bonded child labor unless the project includes specific programs for the elimination of bonded child labor, education and rehabilitation of the affected children, and for improving the social welfare of the children and their families.

Donors should explore the possibility of funding a program with NGOs and the Indian government to effectively implement India’s Bonded Labor (Abolition) Act and accompanying rehabilitation scheme.

Trade benefits provided under the Generalized System of Preferences in both the United States and in Europe are prohibited to countries where forced labor is tolerated. Accordingly, Human Rights Watch/Asia calls upon the United States Trade Representative and the European Union to initiate an investigation into the use of bonded child labor in India and into the Indian Government’s enforcement of the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976. India’s trading partners should use the leverage of GSP trade benefits to encourage the government to eradicate bonded child labor and to provide rehabilitation and education to the children involved.

Recommendations to Retailers, Suppliers, and Indian and International Consumers
When making purchases from industries known to employ large numbers of children in bonded labor, such as the silk, carpet, beedi, silver, leather and agricultural sectors, consumers in India and abroad should require their retailers to pledge to reject goods from suppliers which employ bonded child labor in the manufacture of these goods and to support a good faith program to phase children out of bondage, offering them financial assistance and access to formal education. Consumers should also require retailers to guarantee that they and their suppliers offer full access to independent monitors to all facilities and supplier facilities to check on the incidence of bonded child labor.

Corporations should incorporate a monitoring process for bonded child labor into their quality control procedures and in setting standards for selecting suppliers and products.

Indian consumers should appeal to their members of the legislative assembly (MLA), district magistrates, and district collectors to demand that vigilance committees be established and strengthened, and demand that the government of India identify, release, and rehabilitate all bonded laborers (including children) as required under the Bonded Labour (Abolition) Act, 1976, and accompanying rehabilitation scheme.

International consumers should appeal to their own governments to press the Government of India to abide by its own law by administering in good faith the Bonded Labour (Abolition) Act, 1976, and accompanying procedures for the identification, release, and rehabilitation of bonded laborers.




   Overview of Bonded Child Labor
   Factors Behind Bonded Child Labor: Poverty and Tradition
  “Nimble Fingers,” and Other Myths of Child Labor

   Applicable International Law
   Applicable Domestic Law

   Synthetic Gemstones
   Handwoven Wool Carpets

   Government Policy, Programs, and Initiatives
   Failure of the Indian Government to Enforce the Law

   Enforcement of the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act
   Creating Alternatives to Bonded Child Labor

   A: Selected Articles of the Indian Constitution
   B: The Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976
   C: The Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Rules, 1976
   D: The Children (Pedging of Labour) Act, 1933
   E: The Child Labour (Prohibition & Regulation) Act, 1986

Human Rights Watch      September 1996      ISBN 1-56432-172-X

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