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A $110 loan, then 20 years of debt bondage

outonvacation 2011/06/04 06:29:46

A bonded laborer named Haresh in West Bengal, India, once described to me how
he took a loan of approximately $110 from the local landowner to get married to
his beloved wife, Sarika.


Two decades later, Haresh told me, “My entire family is still in debt to the
landowner. Sarika and I work in the fields, my sons and their wives work at the
brick kilns. One day my grandchildren will work for the landowner. There is no
way to repay these debts. We will only be free when we die.”


Haresh had no real sense of what his outstanding debts were. Since his
initial loan, he had taken numerous loans from the same landowner for basic
subsistence, medicines, repairs to his hut and other reasons. He was also
charged interest that often exceeded 100% per year. Destitute and isolated,
Haresh could not access any other source of credit. He and his family were
forced to work 14 or more hours a day by the landowner, almost every day of the
year, with barely enough food and water to survive.


Haresh’s story is an example of the millions of bonded laborers across South
Asia. Like Haresh, many bonded laborers have been in bondage for much of their
lives. Others enter in and out of bondage several times; and still others enter
in and out of bondage every year for seasonal industries, such as agriculture
and brick-making. These individuals take loans and try to work them off, but
due to deeply exploitive manipulations by their exploiters, they end up toiling
against these small debts for years.


It is important to understand: bonded labor is a form of slavery prohibited
by international and South Asian law. However, bonded labor remains an
ever-evolving, highly complicated mode of labor exploitation that persists in
broad daylight.


At its essence, bonded labor involves the exploitive interlinking of credit
and labor agreements that devolve into slave-like exploitation due to severe
power imbalances between the lender and the borrower. The system persists due
to poverty, absence of alternative credit sources, a lack of justice and rule of
law, and social acceptance of the exploitation of minority castes and
ethnicities that has been prevalent in South Asia since Vedic times.


Debt bondage is not historically unique to South Asia. It was a common mode
of feudal labor exploitation across much of the world centuries ago. However, a
mix of social revolution and transition to industrialized market economies
largely extinguished bonded labor throughout Europe, North America and East
Asia. No such revolution ever took place in South Asia.


As a result, I estimate there are approximately 18.5 to 22.5 million debt
bondage slaves in the world today, almost 90% of whom are in South Asia. This
makes bonded labor the most expansive form of slavery in the world, with
approximately six out of 10 slaves being bonded laborers. (Related: The
challenges of counting a ‘hidden’ population
)


Bonded labor is also an active contributor to the global economy. I have
documented hundreds of bonded laborers in more than 20 industries, such as rice,
tea, frozen fish and shrimp, carpets, cigarettes, fireworks, minerals and
stones, gems and apparel. I have also traced the supply chains of these
products from the point of exploitation in South Asia to retailers in the
European Union and the United States.


Beyond the global economy, bonded labor may also present risks to global
security. My most current research indicates there are increasing security
risks associated with the suffering, poverty, and exploitation that feeds into
debt bondage. Extremists in Pakistan and India have begun to recruit amongst
current, former, and potential bonded laborers with promises of income,
stability, and a way of fighting back against the governments that have
consigned them to abuse and exploitation.


Bonded labor is a relic of history that should have long ago been eliminated
from South Asia, but greed, corruption, and government ineffectiveness allow
this caustic mode of exploitation to persist well into modern tines. In order
to ensure basic human rights, guarantee untainted global supply chains, and
protect international security, the forces that promote bonded labor must be
tackled immediately.

Read More: http://thecnnfreedomproject.blogs.cnn.com/2011/06/...

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