Bonded Labor or Debt Bondage

Bonded labor, or debt bondage, is the least known and most widely used method of enslaving people worldwide. Most prevalent in South Asia, especially India, Pakistan, and Nepal, such labor is localized within the caste system or similar forms of social stratification in spite of existing laws that prohibit slavery in all three countries. Bonded labor also affects migrant workers working in the developed world.

The UN Working Group on Contemporary Forms of Slavery recognizes that some 20 million people are still held in debt bondage around the world. However, there continues to be considerable controversy regarding the number of people actually enslaved as bonded laborers. In India, estimates vary between Human Rights Watch’s appraisal in 1999 of 40 million bonded laborers and the 280,340 that were identified by the Indian government as of March 1999. Similarly, in Pakistan, the Bonded Labour Liberation Front (an NGO), estimated in a submission to the UN that there were 20 million bonded laborers in Pakistan. A representative of the government of Pakistan recently stated that the total number of bonded laborers was between 5,000 and 7,000 (Anti-Slavery Submissions to the UN Commission on Human Rights).

The UN Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery (1956) defines debt bondage as “the status or condition arising from a pledge by a debtor of his personal services or of those of a person under his control as security for a debt, if the value of those services as reasonably assessed is not applied towards the liquidation of the debt or the length and nature of those services are not respectively limited and defined.” Bonded laborers work like slaves, often not knowing when their debt will finally be considered paid. Normally, the bonded laborer’s children inherit the debt.


Prohibitions

  • The UN Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery (1956) prohibits bonded labor at an international level.
  • Article 8 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
  • 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights.
  • International Labour Organization Conventions 29 and 105 concerning forced labor prohibit debt bondage.
  • Many countries have national legislation.

Related Sites

Anti-Slavery International


Content by Mini Singh
Research Analyst, FSE

Content in Arabic by Raja El Habti
Research Assistant, FSE