Justice for bonded labourers

Bonded Labour at a brick kiln
Bonded Labour at a brick kiln in India

Bonded labour is the most common method of enslaving people around the world.  A person becomes a bonded labourer when their labour is demanded to repay a loan. The person is then trapped into working for very little or no pay, often for seven days a week. Interest makes it impossible to pay the loan off and often debts are passed on to next generation.

They are forced to work to repay debts their employer says they owe, and they are not allowed to work for anyone else. Various forms of force are used to make sure they stay. In many cases they are kept under surveillance, sometimes under lock and key. Poverty and the threats of violence force many bonded labourers to stay with their masters, since they would not otherwise be able to eat or have a place to sleep.

Today the International Labour Organisation estimates a minimum 11.7 million people are in forced labour in the Asia-Pacific region, the majority of these are in debt bondage.

Bonded labour has existed for hundreds of years. It was used to trap labourers into working on plantations in Africa and the Caribbean – after the abolition of the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

In South Asia it is rooted in the caste system and predominately affects Dalits (the lowest caste called Untouchables) and still flourishes in agriculture, brick kilns, mills and factories. In the Punjab region of India hundreds of thousands of men, women and children are forced to work as bonded labourers in quarries and brick kilns where they receive little or no pay in return for a loan typically used for survival.

Why does bonded labour exist?

  • Poverty which can force desperate parents to hand over their children in exchange for a tiny loan.
  • Lack of education and ignorance of rights.
  • The caste system.
  • Unwillingness of the authorities to prosecute those responsible.
  • Willingness of people to exploit the freedom of others.
  • Corruption.
  • Limited access to justice.
  • Apathy.
  • Greed.

Example 1 – 60 girls working in a pickle factory

picklesThe girls, 13 to 25 years old, were forced to work 16-hour days in the unsanitary factory, exposed to dangerous chemicals and fed only by rice and water boiled with onions. At night, they crammed their sleeping mats into two tiny rooms; 40 girls slept in one space about the size of a small studio apartment.

The girls had been trapped in the abusive factory for some time. They told shocking stories of how they got there – most said they had been tricked by the same man offering a sightseeing trip down South for about $15.

The girls were forced to start working as slaves right away. The factory produces “gherkins,” cucumbers pickled in various ways. One of the varieties uses acetic acid – a pungent ingredient in household vinegar, but one that is corrosive and harmful in its concentrated form. The girls could not wear gloves when they pickled in acetic acid.

Rescue and restoration

IJM (International Justice Mission) discovered the pickle-making factory. One girl escaped the high-walled compound and was able to share more details about the abuse going on inside. The NGO team presented the slavery case to government officials. They worked together to plan a rescue operation.

One of the IJM staff members, who went on the operation to give technical support, said she was shocked to see the hazardous conditions that the girls were made to work and live under.

IJM social workers helped the girls to understand what was happening – that they were being rescued and not in any sort of trouble. Back at the government office, the girls started to open up about the exhausting work and the factory that they were never allowed to leave.

Example 2 – Whole families held as slaves

tree-choppingIn the last weeks of 2013, rescue finally came to families who had been forced to live and work as slaves for up to three years chopping trees. Children as young as 8 years old were forced to work alongside their parents, and one child said they were not only prevented from going to school, but beaten by the owner if they even asked.

The families said that the man who owned the wood-cutting operation, and controlled their entire lives, leased plots of land that they would clear, chopping and collecting wood that would be sold to local factories and small businesses as firewood for boilers. They moved from site to site often. Sometimes there was a shed where they could store their belongings, but they often slept outside in the same forests where they worked, with no defense from the elements, snakes or wild animals. It took about a week of exhausting physical labor to fill one truck with the minimum load – about ten tons of wood.


After uncovering the abuse, IJM (International Justice Mission) presented the case of slavery to a district official who mobilised a rescue team immediately.

One of the IJM aftercare managers who went to give operational expertise and support to the rescued families said, “It was very painful to see the poor living conditions” of the slaves but added that it was “amazing” to see the official use his authority to bring freedom that same day.

The families were taken home to their villages that same night, and they are now part of IJM’s two-year aftercare program for survivors of slavery.

What can I do?

  • Join a campaigning organisation like Anti-Slavery International.
  • International Justice MissionDonate to organisations like International Justice Mission who expose injustice and rescue people from slavery.
  • Give to anti-poverty organisations like Karuna Action (Poverty is the main thing which causes Bonded Labour).
  • Expose instances of Bonded Labour in your own country. (Yes, it exists in rich, developed countries too.)
  • Raise awareness of the problem among your friends and contacts.
  • Join campaigns on Facebook, Twitter etc.
  • Write to your member of parliament, (and use your vote accordingly).
  • Share this video clip


God cares about injustice! This is what James said about people who exploit their workers:

Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty.
You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter.
You have condemned and murdered innocent men, who were not opposing you. (James 5:4-6 NIV)

There are many forms of injustice in the world. Bonded Labour is among the worse, accentuated by poverty, human nature and apathy. It is time that we, and people from around the world said, “Enough is enough”. Don’t let apathy and ignorance reign. Lift your voice with others against all forms of injustice and the poverty which fuels it.

Author: George Dowdell

I was the founder of Karuna Action (formerly Kingscare) and was the director for 24 years. I have now handed control over to younger people but continue as an advisor and trustee. My passion is to see extreme poverty eliminated and to see justice for the powerless.

2 thoughts on “Justice for bonded labourers”

  1. Thanks for sharing this. It is an eye opener. It reminds me of the post-Civil War south here in the US, which used the penal system to enslave the former slaves. The southern leaders would round up African-Americans for petty crimes, convict them and put them in prison-work groups.


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