Imagine a low-income family in a village who borrowed some money to pay for their daughter's medical treatment. The local landlord lends them the money but sets very high-interest rates. To pay off the debt, the family is forced to work in the landlord's fields for very little pay.
They can only leave once the debt is paid off, but it keeps growing because of the high interest rates. This is an example of bonded labour, where people are trapped in a cycle of work and debt and can't escape.
Bonded labour has been a big problem in India for a long time. It's like people being forced to work for others without getting paid much or sometimes not. This happened because poor folks had to work for wealthy people who owned the land. They didn't have a choice and had to do this to survive.
So, let's delve into the bonded labour in detail.
What is bonded labour?
Bonded labour has been strictly prohibited under several international conventions and many Indian legislations. A person becomes a bonded labourer when their labour is demanded as a means of repayment for a loan. The person is then tricked into working for very little or no pay. Owing to this agreement, the following are the results:
- Work for the person they owe money to or their family without getting paid or getting very little pay. The time they have to work might still need to be decided.
- They can't go where they want to because their freedom is taken away.
- They can't keep their money by selling things they create or work on. Instead, it goes to the person they owe money to.
This definition has been provided in the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act 1976.
International Obligations against bonded labour
Say if people were made to work against their will, threatened with punishments, and not paid for their hard work. The International Labour Organization (ILO) and the United Nations are trying to stop that. They have rules saying this kind of stuff is not allowed. India, as a member of this group, has also agreed to these rules, including the one that says forced labour and slavery should end by 2030
1. Ratification of ILO Abolition of Forced Labour Convention, 1957 (No. 105) by India
India, as a founding member of the International Labor Organization, has ratified the ILO Abolition of Forced Labor Convention, 1957 (No. 105), which is a crucial agreement aimed at preventing various forms of forced labour, such as using work as a punishment for actions like going on strike or holding certain political opinions. This commitment reflects India's dedication to ensuring that people are not coerced into work and promoting fair treatment of workers.
2. SGD Target 8.7
India is responsible for stopping slavery by 2030 as part of the Sustainable Development Goal (Target 8.7). This goal asks countries, including India, to work quickly and effectively to get rid of forced labour, human trafficking, and child labour. It's all about making sure that everyone has fair and reasonable jobs, and the country is committed to ending these harmful practices, including the use of child soldiers, by 2025.
3. Global Slavery Index
The Global Slavery Index is like a worldwide report that looks at how much modern slavery is happening in different countries and what those countries are doing to stop it. India's ranking is not very high, at 53 out of 167 nations, which means there is work to be done to reduce modern slavery in the country. India is working to improve things and improve its rank on this critical list.
Constitutional Provisions on Bonded Labour
- Article 21 deals with the Right to Life and Personal Liberty.
- Article 23 of the Constitution prohibits forced labour.
- Article 24 prohibits employing children (below fourteen) in factories, etc. (the only absolute provision in the Indian Constitution).
- Article 39 directs the State to ensure the well-being and physical vitality of both male and female workers, protect children from exploitation at a young age, and prevent citizens from being compelled by economic necessity to engage in occupations that are inappropriate for their age or physical capabilities.
- Article 42 of the Constitution is also a DPSP, which states, "The State shall make provision for securing just and humane conditions of work." This means that the State must ensure that everyone has a working condition that is just and humane. However, it cannot be enforced as part of Part IV.
- Article 43 of the Constitution- Focuses on improving labourers' working conditions and living standards. At the same time, bonded labour is prohibited under Article 23, which safeguards individuals from forced or exploitative labour practices.
Legislations on Bonded Labour
- Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act 1976
- It applies to all of India, but each state government is responsible for ensuring it's followed in their State.
- It sets up special groups called Vigilance Committees in each district. These committees help the District Magistrate (DM) ensure that the rules of the Act are adequately followed.
- These Vigilance Committees advise the DM to make sure the law is enforced. It's like their job to keep an eye on things.
- To ensure the law is taken seriously, the state governments can give some special powers to certain government officers, like Executive Magistrates, to deal with cases under this Act and decide if someone has broken the law.
- Central Sector Scheme for Rehabilitation of Bonded Labourers (2016)
This scheme provides financial assistance to the extent of ₹ 3 lakhs to release bonded labourers along with other non-cash help for their livelihood.
Landmark SC Cases on Bonded Labour
1. Neerja Chaudhury v. State of Madhya Pradesh (1984)
The Supreme Court ruled that "It is the plainest requirement of Articles 21 and 23 of the Constitution that bonded labourers must be identified and released, and on release, they must be suitably rehabilitated… Any failure of action on the part of the State Government[s] in implementing the provisions of [the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act] would be the clearest violation of Article 21 and Article 23 of the Constitution.”
This judgment emphasizes that the Constitution (specifically, Articles 21 and 23) requires the identification and release of bonded labourers, followed by their proper rehabilitation. If state governments fail to take action under the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, it would be a direct violation of these constitutional articles.
2. People's Union for Democratic Rights and Ors. vs. Union of India (1982)
The court explained the term "force" in the context of forced labour, which means any situation where a person is compelled to work because they have no other viable option and receive pay below the minimum wage. When an individual is deprived of choices and forced into a specific action, it constitutes "force," and labour or service provided under such circumstances qualifies as "forced labour" under Article 23 of the Constitution. This interpretation reinforces the protection of workers from exploitation and ensures they receive fair wages.
3. State of Gujarat and Ors. vs. Hon'ble High Court of Gujarat (1998)
The Supreme Court clarified the meaning of "forced labour" as mentioned in the Indian Constitution. It connected it to the word "begar," which is of Indian origin and has become part of English vocabulary. "Begar" refers to labour or service a person is compelled to provide without receiving fair compensation.
4. O. K. Ghosh And Another vs E. X. Joseph (1962) and Damyanti Naranga vs The Union Of India (1971)
The Supreme Court ruled that Article 19(1)(c) goes beyond simply creating unions or associations; it encompasses the right to maintain those associations as initially intended by the individuals who formed them. In essence, this right is meaningful only when it includes the freedom to sustain the association in its original composition as decided upon voluntarily by its members.
Hence, more vigorous enforcement of labour laws is crucial to combat bonded labour in India. India's low ranking in the Global Slavery Index (53 out of 167 countries as of 2023) points to the need for better anti-slavery efforts. Factors like limited resources, weak education, and societal issues contribute to the problem. Revitalizing district committees, fostering collaboration, and implementing a time-bound action plan are vital steps in addressing bonded labour effectively and protecting workers' rights.
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