Ramesh was a 13-year-old boy from an impoverished family in India. In 1993, his parents offered his labor as collateral for a loan on a small home. Working nearly six and a half weeks from 7 a.m. until 9 at night, Ramesh was forced to roll cigarettes by hand, facing beatings if he did not make his quota of 1500 rolled cigarettes.
As examined by Human Rights Watch, Ramesh's story is one of debt bondage, a form of slavery that appears to be growing throughout the world today.
"Slavery has boomed in the past 50 years as the global population has exploded," notes Susan Llewelyn Leach in the Christian Science Monitor. Represented in many forms, the non-profit group, Anti-Slavery International, notes that bonded labor, a form of slavery, is "probably the least known form of slavery today, and yet it is the most widely used method of enslaving people."
Current estimates on bonded labor are difficult to come by, although the ones available are as high as 100 million individuals kept in some form of bonded labor (the majority of which are children).
In India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and the surrounding areas alone, estimates are made as high as 20 million individuals. Bonded labor is difficult to track, like most slavery, because many of those who exploit this labor are able to claim they came about it legally, and often indeed have law enforcement agencies on their side. Such corruption and oppressive legal and economic systems are violations of human rights, as can be seen when one examines just how bonded labor functions and the abuses that often accompany such bondage.
This form of slavery occurs for a variety of reasons, with the main ones being that individuals were "either born into bondage because they 'inherited' a debt from their parents, sold into bondage by family members, or put themselves into bondage by taking out loans under conditions that made them impossible to repay," notes Human Rights Watch in a report. Also, some areas have old traditions of serfdom that allow for families to be bonded to a particular land owner for generations, allowing the land owner to control their lives and labor.
iAbolish, an anti-slavery group, found that in places such as India, the loans that forced individuals into debt bondage were often small loans typically amounting to anything from $14 to $214, usually for emergencies such as food to stave off starvation, medical treatment, funeral expenses or rites such as marriage dowries. "With exorbitant interest rates of up to 60 percent, these loans are difficult, if not impossible, to repay. Individuals thus become trapped within a system of debt bondage that forces them to repay loans by working unconditionally for their entire lives- even passing on the same debt for generations," notes iAbolish.
While it may seem to us here in America an easy task to either repay such a loan or else leave the situation, individuals in debt bondage are often forcefully kept there by threats of physical violence, sexual violence, assaults on their family or other measures. In Pakistan, Human Rights Watch found agricultural bondage of families and children often occurred (with peasants being forced to work on harvests and farms without payment), landlords maintained private jails to punish slaves with impunity, forcibly transferred anyone who attempted to address the way landlords "cooked the books," and enacted a pattern of rape of the bonded women by police and the slave owners to ensure fear among the population. In other industries in Pakistan that rely on slave labor of this sort, such as brick-kilns, children are usually the ones subject to such slavery and are held in these bonds through beatings, sexual violence and removal from their families and homes, Human Rights Watch reported.
As the epidemic of slavery via debt bondage occurs throughout the world, it is time we take focus on this issue and work to ensure that no one is deprived of his or her rights to freedom of movement, freedom to manage their own labor and freedom from fear and violence such as meted out by the bondage slave owners. Debt bondage as an insidious form of slavery that is too often unnoticed and affects millions of women, men and children around the globe. It is time we take action and work toward not only speaking out against such bondage, but also enacting restrictions against products and companies that utilize debt slaves. Slavery is still present in the world, and it is time to both recognize it and take action.
Meg Burd is a graduate student studying anthropology. Her column runs every Thursday.