The cash-rich Punjab economy stands on a substructure of bonded labor. In this Indian state, migrant laborers are given a monetary advance at the time of recruitment that ties them into debt bondage. The laborers have no say in - and little understanding of - how the debt works. All they know is that they cannot leave their employment. The whole relationship is based on deception and coercion.
The centuries-old tradition of bonded labor lives on, transmuting into newer forms to suit the new economy. International Labor Office (ILO) Director General Juan Somavia has expressed the opinion that globalization has a share of the blame. At the release of the ILO report 'Global Alliance Against Forced Labor' earlier this month (May 2005), he said: "Forced labor represents the underside of globalization and denies people their basic rights and dignity."
About 12.3 million people around the world are victims of forced labor, of whom 10 million are exploited in the private economy; more than 2.4 million have been trafficked; 2.5 million are forced to work by the State or by rebel military groups; children represent between 40 and 50 per cent of all forced labor.
A quick break-up of these statistics shows that, five years into the new millennium, regional inequities persist. Nearly 9.5 million - a massive 77 per cent - of the total number of forced labor is in South Asia and the Pacific. Although exact national figures are not available, it is estimated that India has the biggest share of this number.
The report identifies bonded labor, or debt bondage - where people are trapped in forced labor to pay off a loan from an employer or landlord - as the main form of forced labor in India. Although sector-specific surveys are not available, estimates suggest that a bulk of this labor is in agriculture, rice-mills, domestic service, brick kilns, fields and sericulture.
And this brings us to a fundamental question: what is forced labor? Article 2(1) of the ILO's Forced Labor Convention 1930 defines forced labor as "all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily".
The report says that India was the first country to acknowledge the problem of bonded labor. Under the Bonded Labor System (Abolition) Act of 1976, the Indian government reported 4,859 prosecutions until August 2004 - probably a figure that no other country can match. However, conviction figures on these prosecutions are not available. Even the number of prosecutions does not seem as impressive when compared to the actual number of bonded laborers in the country. The government traced 285,379 instances of bonded labor as of March 31, 2004. Of these, 265, 417 persons received rehabilitation assistance. The remaining (nearly 20,000) could not be traced or had died.
The process is complicated by the prevailing confusion over what constitutes bonded labor. Indian courts tend to favor an expansive definition, even saying that non-payment of minimum wages constitutes forced labor. The ILO definition suggests otherwise, unless there is "a severe violation of human rights and restriction of human freedom" in the employment conditions. According to this definition, low wages or poor working conditions do not necessarily constitute forced labor, nor does pure economic necessity.
This said, the report asserts that the efforts are insufficient: the resources allocated are insufficient, and there is no provision for alternative livelihoods in the long-term. Naturally, many released persons relapse into bondage.
There are success stories as well, though. In Shivpuri district of Madhya Pradesh, for example, 11 families were freed from bondage and given lease rights to a quarry. The district administration implemented parallel support schemes, including a land grant together with provision of equipment and a school. This has led to a remarkable increase in family incomes for these workers, says the ILO report.
As anti-child labor activist and 2003 Magsaysay award winner Shanta Sinha explains in her detailed report `From Work to School: A Note on Universalisation of Elementary Education', pulling children out and throwing them into school, thereby breaking the generational chain in bonded labor, could be an option. Involve teachers, parents, panchayats (village councils) and local organizations, and free children from bonded labor, the report urges .
Apart from the global and regional overview of forced labor today, the ILO report also makes another crucial point - on the changing face of forced labor in the light of globalization.
With increased global competitiveness, there is pressure on suppliers to reduce costs by all available means. Cutting labor costs is the most workable solution they have. In addition to this, the increased supply of migrant workers and deregulation of labor markets also serve to blur the boundaries between formal and informal economies.
This is also the force that drives the increasing feminization of forced labor. Women and girls represent 56 per cent of forced labor victims. In forced commercial sexual exploitation, an overwhelming 98 per cent are women and girls, the report says.
Although, historically, the situation of women and children in forced labor has received little attention, they are far more vulnerable than men in such situations. The system of indirect bondage - women and children bonded through a male member of their family - is an example. They are also subject to excessive workloads, often forced into domestic service as part of the arrangement. This aside, women and children are especially vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse. The report says that women are often "bought and sold" when landlords agree on transfer of debt. Needless to say, the woman herself is not consulted in most cases.
Forms of coerced prostitution are also examined. An example is the 'chukri' system in India, where women are forced to work without pay for a year or more in order to repay a "supposed debt" to the brothel owner for living expenses. In the South Asia-Pacific region as a whole, though, commercial sexual exploitation constitutes less than 10 per cent of the victims of forced labor.
But what is the way forward? It is unrealistic to believe that an emphasis on law enforcement alone can eradicate deeply embedded structural problems. Caroline O'Reilly, senior specialist, Special Action Program to Combat Forced Labor, ILO, Geneva, explains, "Employers are part of the problem, but they also have to be part of the solution."