Why Odisha needs to break free from bonded labour

Baijayant 'Jay' Panda
Baijayant 'Jay' PandaAug 01, 2015 | 17:05

Why Odisha needs to break free from bonded labour

The Harvard scholar Siddharth Kara estimates that there are between 1.8 crore to 2.25 crore bonded labourers in the world, 85 per cent of them in South Asia alone. He estimates that India itself has upwards of 60 per cent of the world's bonded labour, a statistic amounting to 1.07 crore people.

As we grapple with the enormity of this challenge, the second annual World Day against Trafficking in Persons was marked on July 30. Every year millions of children, men and women are trafficked and exploited for profit.


Unwitting victims are pushed into hazardous occupations that leave them with little avenues for exit apart from consequences for their health and well-being.


Yet, despite widespread recognition of the crimes committed by unscrupulous actors in our own society, concrete action has lacked considerably. As a public representative from the state of Odisha, I have personally interacted with many who have been pushed into bonded labour, lured by agents and middlemen in the promise of jobs and a steady stream of income to send home.

In a welcome development earlier this year, around 748 victims of labour trafficking from my home state of Odisha, working in brick kilns across Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, were rescued by the International Justice Mission, a global organisation that protects the poor from violence throughout the developing world.

Odisha is one of the major source state for this form of exploitation and 748 rescued labourers made for only 0.0044 per cent of this serious problem. In recent years, I have visited brick kilns in Telegana's Ranga Reddy district and talked to the various stakeholders, including migrant workers, state government officials, brick kiln owners and their agents, as well as activists and NGOs. Nevertheless such visits only prove to highlight an already recognised issue and any positive outcomes have so far only scratched the surface of the problem. We need to accept this reality of debt bondage faced by millions in our country and rather than brushing it under the carpet, serious questions need to be asked with regard to the enforcement mechanism of already existing protective laws.



It is important to note that even labour trafficking and bonded labour, though a pervasive and long functioning concept in our country, experience changes in pattern. The traffickers have been quick to adapt and continue with their operations. For instance, it is my experience that from Odisha migration caused by everyday desperation has been on the decline. For example, starvation is no longer a pressing issue in Odisha as opposed to a decade or so ago and is contributing less to labour trafficking on account of strong economic growth and robust social safety net programmes for the poor. However there is still a paucity of higher paying livelihoods, providing leverage for traffickers to nudge people to explore opportunities in nearby states. In light of this change, traffickers now extend a lump sum payment of around Rs 13,000 per family member. For a family of five members to receive Rs 65,000 in one payment is a lot of money, and helps to cover major expenditures such as marriages, building a house, medical emergencies etc. Such is the new tactic to induce unwitting labourers.

Moreover, the financial gain that labourers are induced with quickly falls apart if one takes a look at the calculations carefully. Labourers receive a weekly allowance and they only receive a full settlement of their wages at the end of the season (usually five-seven months), which is deceptive. The labourers are charged interest for the upfront lump sum payment and the weekly allowance, which is then deducted from their wage earnings. In sum, the net payment received by the labourer is lower than what was promised/expected. Moreover, this net value is below the minimum wage set by the state. Labourers do not have any recourse besides fearing for their and their families' lives if they choose to speak up.


I do not need to elaborate on the injustices committed as there is sufficient evidence to demonstrate how labourers are exploited, forced to live in hovels, denied minimum wages and their basic human rights. Indeed I have heard of such injustices first hand. I hope our enforcement mechanism would be strengthened in consideration of the adversarial consequences that are imposed on those forced in to bonded labour.


It is important to note that it is not just adults (men or women) affected adversely but children as well. Labourers and their families are trapped in unliveable conditions, with sometimes even children being forced to do backbreaking work for long hours, physically and sexually abused, and prevented from returning home. Moreover, brick kilns see seasonal employment and children of labourers are forced out of school. Language can be a barrier to schooling as such migration occurs between states. Though some state laws require employees of migrant labour to arrange for teaching their children in their mother tongue, enforcement is inconsistent.

Thus our efforts require greater cooperation between state governments to combat this menace, especially with regard to interstate labour movements, registering and monitoring agents and middlemen, and rescues.

Labour trafficking engages more than a single state's jurisdiction and it is imperative that cooperation is strengthened by way of regular interaction of officials, defining definitive roles of all state governments involved and ensuring speedy rehabilitation. The Centre can ensure that the release of funds to the state for rehabilitation efforts are done without delay so that those affected do not return in to bonded labour. Most importantly, let this issue not be reduced to a burden of a particular state. This must be understood as a national priority to help those already facing enormous challenges in their everyday life.

Last updated: August 01, 2015 | 17:05
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