Book Reviews

Bonded Labor


Cheap labour is a key component of competitiveness for companies striving to make a profit in today’s global market. Yet, as Siddharth Kara points out in Bonded Labor, it is too often an excuse for exploitation. When a US or European company cuts a deal with a South Asian company to buy tea or carpets, for instance, how much does it know about the people at the lowest level of the supply chain, about the hands that picked the tea leaves or painstakingly knotted the carpet?

Kara takes us to the fields, quarries, huts and kilns of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal for a direct look at the face of modern-day slavery. He describes malnourished women picking tea leaves in oppressive heat and given little water and no food for fourteen-hour shifts; and scrawny children hunched for long hours over looms in dimly lit shacks. He recounts the tales of men, women and children so poor they have no alternative but to bond themselves to those who own the land and the resources around them. They surrender their freedom for food and shelter because they have no reasonable alternative.

Kara calculates that there are 18 to 20.5 million bonded labourers in the world, with at least 84 per cent of these in South Asia. Their plight begins with the acceptance of an advance payment, or the provision of food and shelter, for which they sign over their labour for a season, or a year, or a lifetime. They are often recruited by go-betweens who keep records of their debts, which in many cases seem only to grow, never diminish. Illiterate and unschooled, the workers rarely challenge their overseers, especially as doing so may result in eviction or violence against them, or their families.

In addition to producing saleable goods, bonded labourers help build modern infrastructure and facilities for the upper and middle classes of their societies – while themselves living on construction sites or roadsides without proper shelter, toilet facilities, clean water or adequate food. These construction workers are generally trafficked from poor rural areas, and lured by the promise of opportunity in the cities. Kara quotes an Indian woman named Rashmi, interviewed at a huge construction site in the new urban township of Navi Mumbai, where her entire family was working as bonded labourers:


We are treated like cockroaches . . . 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. Every week I go to Taloje Creek and pray for the day my life will end.


Bonded workers live at the bottom of society; almost all belong to ‘untouchable’ castes or minority groups. Kara outlines the history of the caste system that has persisted in South Asia for centuries, the slave trade that thrived in colonial times, and the system of bonded labour that arose as an alternative to slavery when it was generally outlawed in the nineteenth century. He points out that the exploitative bonded-labour system is now illegal in India, Pakistan and Nepal, yet persists with impunity. He describes India’s laws and policies aimed at eradicating bonded labour as ‘passionate and intelligent’ but adds that ‘laws – even if perfectly designed – only go so far as the will to enforce them.’ Bonded labour, he says, ‘is a form of slavery that is perpetuated by custom, corruption, greed and social apathy.’

Kara spent eleven years investigating the exploitation of South Asia’s underclasses. Bonded Labor builds on the meticulous research he used for his first book, Sex Trafficking, which is considered one of the most authoritative studies on the sex trade. He includes this unscrupulous business in his statistics for bonded labour, since its victims are often deprived of liberty and forced to work to pay off ‘debts’ incurred for their transport and basic sustenance.

In 2011 bonded labour produced an estimated US$17.6 billion in profits worldwide. Yet despite this huge figure, Kara points out that the system is inefficient and unproductive for everyone except the exploiters. Total output is less than it would be if free and fair market forces prevailed: workers paid decent wages are more productive than those who are undernourished and unmotivated. The system encourages human rights abuses and flouting of the law, and reinforces the outmoded notion that low-caste groups are not entitled to protections and opportunities that other citizens take for granted.

Kara concludes his book with recommendations for legal, economic and educational reforms that would render bonded labour obsolete.

This book is a valuable resource for policy makers, human-rights activists, legal experts and academics, as well as for businesses with supply chains in developing countries. It deserves attention, and should inspire the eradication of the insidious crime of enslavement.



Bonded Labor is published by Columbia University Press.

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