Slavery by any other name - bonded child labour in South Asia

July 17, 2017


The South Asian Task Force on Bonded Child Labour defines a bonded child labourer as:

“a child (below 18 years of age as defined in the UNCRC) working against debt taken by himself/herself or his/her family members, or working against any social obligation (e.g. caste, ethnic or religious practices, etc.) with or without the child’s consent, under conditions that restrain his/her freedom and development, making him/her vulnerable to physical and other forms of abuse and depriving him/her of his/ her basic rights.”

(Global There are some very blurred lines between child labour and child bondage and in particular where children fall through existing protection because they are, in all other respects, essentially bonded but not defined as such. The South Asian Task Force on Bonded Child Labour believes that the root causes of bonded child labour are caste and racial discrimination, the feudal system that still prevails in agricultural communities, ignorance and illiteracy, and the liberal use of cheap labour in production processes which are aggravated by anti-people development paradigms, environmental degradation, lack of political will for effective social change, inadequate legislative framework and ineffective enforcement of policies, lack of meaningful and quality education, inadequate living wages, gender discrimination, absence of child oriented family and social values, and the prevalence of the education systems that perpetuate social inequalities and injustices. Corruption and apathy among government officials and historical economic relationships based on the hierarchy of caste are other key elements


In South Asia in particular bonded labour continues to flourish in feudal agricultural relationships. An important practical limitation to freeing bonded labourers or implementing well-intentioned anti-bonded labour legislation is the prevailing lack of education or even basic functional literacy amongst the families that make up the majority of bonded labour. They live and work in secluded circumstances and are marginalized and invisible for social and economic reasons. They are in many cases unable to even calculate or monitor their basic debts. An added burden is that these debts only increase with the costs of owner-provided food, shelter, and clothing (all of which are inadequate) being added onto the capital sum and interest. In this region in particular customary or historical practices take the form of status or hierarchical obligations within society, where discrimination and social exclusion leaves people, and their communities, bound to their employers on the basis of their lower or marginal status. These obligations are embedded in a more general environment where status is widely accepted as sufficient grounds for systematic discrimination, enslavement, and general denial of rights and equal treatment, bondage excludes people from accessing the benefits of society. Children in bondage suffer from the cumulative effects of this exclusion throughout their lives.


Bonded labour, also known as debt bondage, is probably one of the least known forms of slavery today outside of the countries where it is endemic, but it is responsible for enslaving millions of people around the world. A child is considered bonded labour when he/she inherits debt; when the child is used as collateral for a loan; and when the child takes an advance on expected future wages. The term “child labour” is often defined as work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity, and that is harmful to physical and mental development.

There are regional differences in what type, degree and length of employment is considered acceptable for children, particularly those from marginalised and oppressed sectors of society. Children in bondage suffer a range of abuses and violations of their rights and dignity. However, the impact of bondage on child labourers is not unique to bondage, as many child workers suffer the same exploitation that bonded child labourers do. That being said, the level of exploitation associated with bondage and slavery is manifested in the extreme degrees to which children are made to endure long hours, dangerous and unhealthy work and working conditions, violence and abuse, humiliation, discrimination, and a general lack of access to other rights such as to education, participation in culture and recreation.


Based on officially available statistics, it is estimated that there are 21.6 million children, aged between 5 and 14 years, working in South Asia out of a total of 300 million children in this age group. Figures by the International Labour Office (ILO) in a briefing note on child labour in 2004 give an indication of the historical scope of the problem, which will have grown considerably in size since. Children in bondage suffer a range of abuses and violations of their rights and dignity. However, the impact of bondage on child labourers is not unique to bondage, as many child workers suffer the same exploitation that bonded child labourers do. That being said, the level of exploitation associated with bondage and slavery is manifested in the extreme degrees to which children are made to endure long hours, dangerous and unhealthy work and working conditions, violence and abuse, humiliation, discrimination, and a general lack of access to other rights such as to education, participation in culture and recreation. Child bonded labour has a number of commonalities across the region, in the areas where it is most frequently encountered. In particular this includes children working in hazardous industries, export industries and the sex industry, after being trafficked into sexual exploitation. The ILO Convention No. 182 (Article 3d) defines hazardous child labour as 'work, which by its nature or the circumstances in which it is carried out, is likely to harm the health, safety, or morals of children'. The main export industries include carpet and footwear in Pakistan and India, surgical instruments in Pakistan, and garments in Bangladesh. All countries in the region have high levels of child trafficking (both internally and across borders); and child bonded labour in agriculture and certain parts of the industrial and informal sectors. There is also a noted lack, identified by international NGOs and UN bodies, of adequate law enforcement efforts and persistent institutional weaknesses which mitigate against effective measures to prevent and address existing child bonded labour.


India, the world’s largest democracy, is also home to more slaves than all the other countries of the world combined. With roughly one billion inhabitants, India supports over 15% of the world’s population. And with more than half of India’s population living below the income poverty line, nearly 40% of the population cannot afford a sufficient diet. In addition inadequate government expenditure on education, health, and welfare increases the high vulnerability of much of India’s vast population to exploitation and enslavement. India has some 44 million workers under the age of 13, with 300,000 in the carpet-making industry alone. These numbers also include child slaves. By conservative estimates, there are thought to be at least 15 million children in bonded labour in India. Debt bondage, is used to exploit people - especially children - in all sorts of work, including: domestic service; agriculture; prostitution, clothing and textile manufacturing; silk production; the leather industry; match-making; glass blowing; gemstone polishing; salt production; cigarette (beedi) rolling; soccer ball stitching; the fireworks industry (especially in preparation for Diwali, the festival of lights preceding the Hindu New Year) and the hand-knotted carpet-making industry. There is a significant lack of data on bonded child labour, which impedes initiatives to stop it and rehabilitate victims, in addition to hindering efforts to target direct assistance to those most in need. Little aggregate data on the incidence, nature and extent of bonded child labour exists, even in those countries where it is clear that there is a major problem. The essence of debt bondage involves a vicious cycle of exploitation initiated by inadequate income, lack of access to formal credit markets, and numerous other forces, rooted in socio-cultural mores of discrimination and exclusion of certain segments of society which in themselves are a result of poverty, ethnic and gender biases. Chronic underpayment of minimum wages leaves immense portions of the unskilled and semi-skilled labor force in India vulnerable to debt bondage in order to meet basic consumption needs, attend to life rituals, or deal with medical emergencies.


Estimates suggest that the number of working children in India ranges from 60 to 115 million, the largest number of working children in the world. Whether they are in stone quarries, working in the fields sixteen hours a day, picking rags in city streets, or hidden away as domestic servants, these children endure harsh and difficult lives. Human Rights Watch estimated in 1996 that there were approximately fifteen million children working as bonded laborers in India. Most were put into bondage in exchange for comparatively small sums of money: two thousand rupees-equal to about thirty-five U.S. dollars-is the average amount "loaned" in exchange for a child's labor. The most affected industries in India with regard to child labour include the following:

i) Agriculture: The majority of bonded child labourers in India are thought to be working in agriculture; Human Rights Watch estimated in 1996 that 52–87 percent of bonded child labourers in India were working in this Sector. The 1978–79 survey by the Gandhi Peace Foundation found roughly 650,000 agricultural bonded labours under the age of 20, while in 2000, the Working Group on Contemporary Forms of Slavery cited reports that 19 percent of bonded agricultural labourers in Karnataka were under the age of 15, with 5 percent under the age of 10.25 Indirect reports also confirm that there are thousands of children bonded in this area. For example, the NGO Volunteers for Social Justice estimated that in Punjab alone there are half a million agricultural bonded labourers, with children generally working alongside their families.

ii) Beedi-rolling: There were an estimated 325,000 beedi-rollers in India as of 1996, most in Tamil Nadu, and a large portion of these were thought to be bonded child labourers; Human Rights Watch estimated that there were between 30,000 and 45,000 beedi-rolling bonded child labourers in Tamil Nadu’s North Arcot district alone.(10) Beedi-rolling is also highly prevalent in Andhra Pradesh, with the majority of the beedi workforce in all states comprised of women and children.) In this industry, it is common for children to be individually pledged as bonded child labourers, but their labour is often not applied towards the liquidation of their debts; rather they are required to pay back their loans in one lump sum, with their labour merely serving as interest on the loan and security that it will be repaid.

iii) Brick kilns: Reports indicate that bonded child labour is widespread in India’s brick kilns, although women and children are not normally registered on the employment rolls, so there is no official record of child employees. In a survey of brick kilns in Punjab, 53 percent of workers (of all ages) reported having taken an advance, with brick-makers (patheras) most likely to be bonded. The Supreme Court-commissioned study of Tamil Nadu reported even higher rates of debt bondage, with 80 percent of kiln workers bonded in that state’s Pudukottal district. There are multiple reports that entire families work together at the kilns, indicating that there may be a high incidence of bonded child labour in this area.

iv) Silver and jewelry making. The city of Salem, Tamil Nadu has been a major producer of domestically-consumed silver jewelry since 1980. Of the 100,000 child laborers working in Salem district an estimated 10,000 are working in silver smithies. These workers are concentrated in towns given over largely to the silver industry. Human Rights Watch visited one of these towns to carry out interviews. There were five hundred residents, two hundred of whom were children under the age of fifteen. One hundred and thirty-five of these children were labouring in the production of silver. It is reported locally to be an entirely bonded industry.

v) Weaving - carpet and silk industries. There are 300,000 children working to produce India's fine carpets. Ninety percent of these children, or about 270,000, are bonded laborers. In the carpet belt of Uttar Pradesh, where most of India's carpets are woven, the vast majority of the workers are low-caste Hindu boys. The number of girls in their ranks is increasing, however, as more children are brought in from Nepal or recruited to work in other states


The practice of bonded child labour violates each one of the international human rights conventions; India is a party to all of them, and as such is legally bound to comply with their terms and take steps to implement them. The failure of the plethora of international and national legal instruments to significantly reduce bonded labour and slavery in India needs to be viewed in the context of the one very notable exception; that of the ILO Convention on the Worst Forms of Child Labour (No. 182). India’s refusal to ratifiy this until June 13, 2017, literally just last month, has left a very significant gap and legal loop hole, banning as it does all exploitative forms of child labour including trafficking, slavery and hazardous employment. The Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act of 1976 is the most significant domestic legal protection, it outlaws all debt bondage, including that of children, whilst additionally requiring government intervention and rehabilitation of the bonded worker. In tandem with the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act 1986 (which regulates hours and prevents children from working in identified hazardous industries) and other pieces of protective legislation that apply in varying circumstances to the situation of the bonded child labourer, there should in theory be sufficient legal remedies to make a significant impact. That this is not the case is largely because such measures  are significantly undermined by an extremely low rate of enforcement. The current legal framework is inconsistent with accepted international standards, as it does not rigorously prohibit work for children under age 14 or proscribe hazardous work for children under age 18. The law as it currently stands also does not provide legal protection for children working for household-based enterprises, allowing many illegal practices to continue. There are significant gaps in enforcement and in particular a lack of social and political will, leading to a haphazard and half-hearted application and interpretation of the relevant laws. This is exacerbated by social apathy, particularly in those parts of society who benefit most from the cheap labour, which combined with patchy enforcement, significantly contribute to these gaps persisting and the system remaining resistant to change.


Every industry, and every individual case involving child bonded labourers violates numerous regulatory provisions, and the largest and most significant industries, beedi, carpets, and silk, also violate prohibitory provisions. In addition to violating the two main instances of domestic protective legislation, outlined above, most industries also violate one or more of the following laws: the Factories Act; the Beedi and Cigar Workers (Conditions of Employment) Act; the Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act; the Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act and the Children (Pledging of Labour) Act, which is similar in its protections to the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act. These violations represent the most severe and egregious of the many legal failings contributing to the persistence of bonded child labour in India. The benefit of specific laws to address bondage is that such laws address it as a social phenomenon, prohibiting bondage of any person in any form. Therefore, unlike most child labour legislation, these laws will cover children of all ages working in all sectors. The challenge in the implementation of such laws is the possibility of resistance to their application to children specifically due to a perception that child labour is a separate issue, and the vested interests in society allowing these practices to continue. Legal interventions remain the bedrock of actions against bonded child labour, especially in the enforcement of law where it exists and the development of legislation where it does not.


Poverty and lack of social security are some of the main causes of child labour. The increasing gap between the rich and the poor, privatization of basic services and the neo-liberal economic policies linked to globalization are all factors which have contributed to major sections of the population being unemployed and without basic needs. Poverty can also be seen as a consequence of bondage insofar as the bondage may exacerbate and entrench the factors that lead to both further bondage and poverty, leading to an unbreakable cycle This adversely affects children more than any other group. The brutish, hazardous, and deeply exploitative conditions are a direct result of poverty, corruption, intransigence, and a willful disregard for the humanity of minority and low caste workers at the bottom of the supply chain. The conditions faced by the child workers in India’s most profitable sectors offer a glimpse into the conditions of extreme distress, disenfranchisement, and exploitation faced by all of India’s marginalized and vulnerable populations. Solutions to bondage demand an understanding of and action against a complex number of social and economic issues. Civic society and non-governmental organisations play a pivotal role in raising awareness of, and working to change, human rights injustices. The greatest advances made against child slavery in India, has been by the South Asian Coalition on Child Servitude (SACCS). This is a proactive coalition of more than 200 non-governmental organizations working on child rights issues in various industries based in India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. While numerous NGOs and activists have made tremendous efforts to address these abuses across the last few decades, the abuses nonetheless persist. Recognising both the need to undertake further research and support the efforts of NGOs to vastly increase measures to protect the child workers of India from slave-like exploitation are key elements in elevating the dignity and decency of the lives of the hundreds of millions of disenfranchised and exploited people of the country. The results of the current sustained advocacy by grass roots organisations and on-going research will hopefully also demonstrate conclusively that rigorous, first-hand data gathering of slavery and child labor, along with detailed supply chain tracing, is fully achievable and should be conducted by expert teams focused on dozens of commodities around the world. Doing so promises to provide the optimal foundation on which to build a new era of more effective efforts to tackle human bondage and to alleviate much of the suffering endured by countless workers who toil as the expendable underclass of the global economy. This will hopefully catalyze more meaningful efforts to eliminate from this sector the vast scale of suffering that remains endemic to its production base. No one wishes to purchase a beautiful carpet or a hand embroidered sari that has been woven by the hands of a brutalized child slave.




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