Despite numerous labor-friendly laws passed since independence, slavery is rife in the caste-obsessed country
Maniram Sankar Atala was among thousands of people stranded on roads when India announced a nationwide lockdown to contain the spread of Covid-19 in April 2020.
Atala’s employer in Tamil Nadu state left him at a petrol station and never returned. Without knowing the local Tamil language and with no money in hand, the tribal man from Maharashtra state slept in the open without food for several days.
Someone informed Father Sahaya Philomin Raj, a Jesuit lawyer-priest, about Atala. With the help of police, the priest rescued and accommodated him in a Jesuit home until the lockdown was lifted.
Atala was among 14 stranded laborers Father Raj and his team rescued during the lockdown.
“Bonded labor still exists across the country in different forms,” Father Raj said, adding that “migrants are the modern-day slaves” in India.
Atala’s story is an example. His employer hired him in September 2019 promising a monthly wage of 9,000 rupees (US$120) to work with a team drilling bore wells in Tamil Nadu. But until March, after six months of work, he was paid only some $70.
If the priest had not come to our rescue, we would have all died of hunger
When the Covid-19 lockdown left them jobless, their employer took them in a vehicle and left them near a petrol station. He promised to return soon to arrange their travel back home, but never did.
“If the priest had not come to our rescue, we would have all died of hunger,” Atala said.
Atala was lucky to have met a Good Samaritan in the form of Father Raj. Hundreds like him died on the roads during the lockdown because of starvation, exhaustion from long walks or being hit by speeding trucks and trains.
Father Raj, who is a practicing lawyer, foresees a bleak future for the poor working classes and manual laborers in India.
Since independence in 1947, successive governments have enacted 29 labor-friendly laws to ensure minimum wages and social security among other employment benefits.
The laws did not change the age-old practice of bonded labor or debt labor, which continued across India in various forms. In 1976, the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act was brought into force.
“But the situation of the poor laborers did not change much,” Father Raj said.
The priest said he has come across many cases of employees from the organized sector being asked to work on less than the minimum wage or forced to accept huge cuts in salaries since the lockdown.
Hire and fire has become the order of the day. It is a modern form of bonded labor prevalent not only in India but across Asia
The situation has worsened since the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party-led government took the reins in New Delhi in 2014.
The final nail in the coffin came recently when Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government moved to consolidate the 29 labor-friendly laws into four codes.
“The labor codes are not employee-friendly, they are corporate-friendly,” Father Raj said. “Hire and fire has become the order of the day. It is a modern form of bonded labor prevalent not only in India but across Asia.”
Labor rights organizations pursued parliament to enact the Unorganised Workers’ Social Security Act 2008 to ensure the welfare of poor home-based, self-employed or daily-wage workers.
Figures from the National Sample Survey Organisation for 2009-10 showed that out of the 465 million employed in the country, only 28 million were in the organized sector while 437 million were in the unorganized sector.
Baba Adhav, who led the National Campaign Committee on Unorganised Labour, told UCA News the law was a culmination of a long nationwide struggle.
“We wanted central government schemes and budgetary allocations for food cards and night shelters so that no poor person in this country will have to sleep on an empty stomach anymore,” he said.
But despite a law in place since 2008, very few in the unorganized sector enjoy work security, minimum wages, an eight-hour working day, days off, paid leave, sick leave, annual bonus, pensions and so on.
“We Indians do not value manual work. There is a strange prejudice against it in society. We seem to forget that the construction or domestic workers who serve us are as much a part of modern India as doctors and engineers,” Adhav said.
Even after six decades of independence, legitimate demands of unorganized workers continue to be ignored because they are divided along caste and gender lines, whether working as domestic helps, agricultural laborers, migrant workers or construction workers.
“Caste is at the root of inequality in Indian society. Although the old order has more or less collapsed, it is not as if newer emerging systems are equitable. Urbanization has ushered in new ways of discrimination,” Adhav said.
He pointed to how India’s large cities lack spaces to house poor migrant workers. “Nobody wants them in their neighborhood. Where are they supposed to live?”
Caste system to blame for bonded labor
The origin of bonded labor or unorganized worker systems in India can be traced back 3,000 years to the caste system practiced by the majority Hindus and other major religious communities like Buddhists, Sikhs and even Muslims and Christians.
Hindus make up nearly 80 percent of the country’s 1.3 billion population and the traditions and practices of the majority community have had a direct bearing on the entire society.
Upper-caste orthodox Hindus still tend to believe in their superior position within the caste system, which comprises four main categories — Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras.
The Brahmins, the former priestly caste, are at the top of this ladder and are considered intellectuals, while the Kshatriyas are second in line being erstwhile warriors and rulers. The Vaishyas or the trader communities occupy the third slot, while below them are the Shudras, who are traditional artisans and laborers.
At the bottom of the heap are the Dalits or former untouchables who existed outside the caste structure. They are now categorized as scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, making up more than 25 percent of India’s population.
The scheduled castes and scheduled tribes were the worst-affected victims of the bonded labor system, forming the backbone of today’s unorganized sector.
How caste encourages bonded labor
Traditionally, the Dalits did not have an independent existence and even today depend on the higher castes for their daily survival.
“Dalits traditionally toiled and lived on the farms owned by the rich upper castes. They believe their life is meant for serving their masters. They never had an identity of their own,” said Sundeep Pouranik, a senior journalist based in Bhopal, capital of Madhya Pradesh state.
Pouranik told UCA News that many among the Dalits and other oppressed communities continue to perform traditionally assigned duties “like robots, without asking any questions.”
The men are employed in the fields and women are usually engaged in household work. “There is no payment, but they are given food, accommodation and clothes to cover their bodies,” he said.
Entire families perform their assigned tasks until death. The children take over after their parents. They are unaware of the progress happening in the world outside.
“When it comes to marriage, a Dalit boy will have to marry on the directions of his master to a girl who probably is already working as a bonded laborer. After the marriage, the couple will continue to be exploited,” Pouranik said.
Though there has been a remarkable improvement in the status of Dalits, older forms of exploitation haven’t been completely abolished. Men and women who are illiterate and financially weak are still forced to continue with old traditions but in different forms.
“They may wear better clothes, live in their own houses, but they continue to labor in the farms and houses of rich upper-caste people for paltry pay or no wages as they have no other means of survival,” Pouranik explained.
Modern forms of bonded labor
Broadly, child labor, agricultural debt bondage and bonded migrant labor are under the legal framework as forms of bonded labor, but it has many manifestations in modern India.
“Yes, it is true. Legally, bonded labor no longer exists in India. But in practice, it is thriving,” said Father Caesar Henry, who is working to protect the land of indigenous people from the clutches of money lenders in Assam state in northeast India.
“Our people are poor and have no savings. They, mostly indigenous people, borrow from money lenders when they get sick, don’t have food or for celebrations such as marriages,” Father Henry told UCA News
“The money lenders charge at least 150 percent interest and when they fail to return it, they are forced to work on their own land and produce crops for the money lender.
“In this process, there is no clash of interests or conflict. The debtor works happily on his land for the money lender and his family assists the family of the money lender in exchange for food and sometimes little money. This is a new form of bonded labor being practiced in Assam.”
When the poor man is unable to clear the debt even after working for years, he is forced to migrate to urban centers. Then the money lender takes over his land and the poor man ends up losing everything.
“The poor accept this as their inability [to pay] rather than questioning the illegal practice. Unfortunately, they cannot claim their land back as they do not have proper documents to assert their legal rights,” Father Henry lamented.
They migrate to cities and are paid less than the minimum wages as unemployment is rampant in the country
The priest and his team encourage indigenous people to legally register their land in their family name so that no one can exploit their situation.
The increased depletion of farmland and constant crop failures due to natural calamities are forcing many small and medium-level farmers to become laborers in the cities and towns of India.
“They migrate to cities and are paid less than the minimum wages as unemployment is rampant in the country. Such practices are indeed modern methods of bonded labor,” Carole Geeta of Mission Sisters of Ajmer, an activist lawyer based in Rajasthan state in eastern India, told UCA News.
Many cities have designated labor addas or hangouts around street corners where migrant workers gather early each morning to seek work. Labor contractors and sundry middlemen frequent them and bargain hard to fix the lowest wage rate.
“The case of domestic workers is the same. They too are denied a dignified wage. On the contrary, they are exploited, often taking advantage of individual vulnerabilities and the high unemployment situation,” the nun said.
Migrant workers are highly exploited, especially those working in unorganized sectors such as construction.
“Workers are promised fair wages and good working facilities when they are hired, but in reality they don’t get even the minimum wages. Their health care and social security are not addressed,” she explained.
ILO combating forced labor
The International Labour Organisation (ILO), in one of its reports on special action programs to combat forced labor published in 2005, noted: “In India, with its great diversity of labour arrangements, it can never be easy to present an overall picture of bonded labour incidence and characteristics. This was despite India being the first country in South Asia to abolish bonded labor in 1976.”
The ILO admits that India had taken many important measures since then to seek the eradication of forced and bonded labor, including Supreme Court judgments of the early 1980s.
“The picture that emerges from the review provides compelling evidence of the persistence of bonded labour in a wide range of economic sectors and many different states,” said the report.
“Although it appears that the more traditional forms of agrarian labour attachment in India have declined substantially, it seems also that new forms of bondage have emerged in more modern agricultural as well as in many different sectors of the informal economy.”
According to the ILO, migrant laborers appear particularly vulnerable to bonded labor exploitation today through recruitment systems where labor contractors and intermediaries lure ill-informed workers from their home communities with advance payments and false promises of well-paid, decent work.
The report also said that “deceptive arrangements are increasingly a feature of forced labour in all parts of the world, whether affecting internal or international migrants.”
Labor rights activists are concerned the federal government has not so far framed a National Employment Policy, even though India has ratified the ILO’s Employment Policy Convention of 1964.
In the absence of a clear policy and enough data on contract and casual or temporary workers employed in the government and private sectors, inhuman practices continue to thrive, they say.
“Bonded labor will continue to exist in the country until and unless government puts an end to red-tapism and encourages prosecution of those who violate the norms,” said A.T. Padmanabhan, a national working committee member of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions.
“We see everywhere employers taking advantage of the vulnerability of the poor and the inaction of law-enforcing agencies to act against the violations,” Padmanabhan told UCA News.
“Fear of law is a must to end illegal practices like bonded labor. The federal government has now turned the labor-friendly laws as corporate friendly, leaving little chance for the working class to assert their rights.”
Top court asserts rights of migrant workers
The Supreme Court recently issued directions to the Modi government on registering the country’s vast unorganized workforce and its huge numbers of inter-state laborers on a national database and ensuring that none of them went hungry.
The government has been given a deadline of July 31 to make available a portal for its National Database for Unorganised Workers project so that it may be used for registering unorganized workers across India.
The country’s top court, while disposing of suo motu proceedings on the miseries of migrant laborers, has now fixed a deadline of Dec. 31 for all states and union territories to complete the process.
The court’s intervention and verdict open up the possibility for inter-state and unorganized workers to at last be able to reap the benefits of welfare laws enacted for them.
If that system becomes operational, migrant workers like Atala may not be stranded at petrol stations. They will have a system to get state help.