India by its legislation named “Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976” abolished the system bonded labour which is also known as forced labour or debt bondage way back in 1976 but it seems that the act is just a substantial piece of legislation without any ground-level implementation, which is problematic. It is 2020 now and because of COVID-19, the issue was once again in limelight. The country saw migrant workers back on roads walking miles and miles to reach their homes, while some of them were not even allowed to go back to their natives.
In Karnataka, the labours were not being allowed to go back to their home, it soon became a controversy that sparked the allegations of bonded labour which forced the government to take a U-turn. Even after the abolition of the bonded labour, According to the Ministry of Labour and Employment of the Government of India, there are over 300,000 bonded labourers in India, with a majority of them in states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Odisha and as per the current situation, the number is expected to rise further.
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the true working and living conditions of the workers. This crisis does make me stop and wonder, how can this be the situation of most of the Indian workers that too even after 70 years after independence?
As most of India is still under lockdown and are seeking for a consistent supply of essential goods in the ongoing lockdown to fight COVID-19, the main question that catches importance is – what will be the conditions under which the labour force will be meeting the demand of mass production and delivery at low costs?
The national lockdown was implemented as a necessary step for slowing the rapid spread of the coronavirus. There are, however, high chances of the contagion that will surely go beyond these health-related challenges, and will raise, long-term humanitarian concerns.
There is approximately 39 crore of unorganized and migrant workers on the border or outside the socio-economic security umbrella, are they are the most vulnerable section. This makes those labours the easiest target for the well organised crime network of human trafficking. Poverty and hunger await them when they reach their villages across states. They will be forced into debt and exploitative interest rates even for their daily survival. This will prompt several decades of generational bondage and wage-less labour. Thousands and thousands of children will be enslaved. What is missing from those labourers life is a well-dignified life, which is the right of every citizen in a democratic country like ours.
Once the lockdown will be lifted and the manufacturing activity will be resumed, factory owners will start looking for different means to cover their losses by ways employing cheap labor. Rapidly Increasing, desperate and the vulnerable populations of unorganized labors, who will be in no position to negotiate their wages or their rights, will be their catch for cheap labour.
A large number of these labourers have the responsibility of children who all will be forced out of school, with the burden of sustaining their families. Thousands of children will be likely to be trafficked across the country to work in manufacturing units where they will be paid little to no wages and will possibly face physical, mental, and sexual violence. Underage girls will be married at very young and will be bought and sold into prostitution. According to government data of 2007, there are almost 30 lakh women, which includes 12 lakh girls below the age of 18 years, involved in sex work.
With COVID-19 as an excuse, several states are reducing the little security that was available to workers by eliminating and altering various laws to favor businesses. In Uttar Pradesh, 14 labour laws like the Minimum Wages Act and Industrial Disputes Act are being suspended for three years for making an effort to attract capital. The same has been done by MP and Gujarat too. The plea made by these states is that this is needed to be done for reviving economic activity. Due to these decisions, the poor working conditions of the labour will deteriorate further.
What Should Be The Preparation For Countering Bonded Labour And Trafficking:
The central and state governments are struggling to contain the health crisis and economic challenges, therefore a great amount of planning must be done in dealing with the approaching impact of the crisis, mainly in terms of providing safety to the most vulnerable groups.
- Continuous Assessment and review of legal framework: The government should assess the various existing criminal laws on trafficking and its potentiality to oppose the crime and meet the needs of the sufferer.
- Inspections of manufacturing units: The Small and medium businesses will now try and work through unregulated manufacturing units to disrupt inspection and they must be contained within the policy of accountability. The regular enforcement, implementation, and compliance of various child labour and bonded labour laws will require much-increased focus, which includes extensive search exercises of factories and other production units, for at least some years, so the use of child labourers can be prevented.
- Spreading awareness at source areas of trafficking: Schools, religious authorities, communities, and the local administration should recognize and control trafficking and bonded labour in villages. Regular campaigns should educate communities about the threat and methods of trafficking agents, mainly in areas such as West Bengal, Assam, Jharkhand, Bihar.
The government should immediately start registration of unorganized workers and start creating opportunities for them, so that they won’t indulge again in the activities they have been rescued from. Financial protection must be extended for the next few year, in order to keep the wolf away from their doors.
- Increasing budget allocation for law enforcement and rehabilitation of Bonded Labours: There is undersupply in the budget allocation to counter bonded labour and trafficking. Up to 2016, 3.13 lakh bonded labourers were rescued across the country. The rehabilitation framework for bonded labourers who were rescued was strengthened in 2016, when, central government scheme provided for compensation up to Rs 3 lakh to rehabilitated bonded labours.
From the date of the notification of the said scheme till December 2019, Bachpan Bachao Andolan, founded by Kailash Satyarthi, has rescued almost 1,550 child bonded labourers and 2,823 victims of trafficking who were children. The rehabilitation of these children required a budget minimum of Rs 100.2 crore. But, the total allocation for this scheme in the national budget is only Rs 100 crore annually. Hence, an immediate hike must happen, especially focusing on the rehabilitation of rescued bonded labourers and trafficked victims by providing them the means to restart their life again with dignity.
- Regulating loan and moneylending systems: The rapid increase in the power of local moneylenders in rural areas of the country to exploit the people affected by the lockdown needs to be regulated, including licensing to lend, setting lending rates, government banks providing long-term soft loans without collateral, and simple recovery processes. State governments should also actively participate in issuing immediate orders to end bonded labour.
The ongoing humanitarian crisis in the repercussions of the current global health crisis is real. Our planning and preparation in the middle of the current lockdown can save the lives of women, men, and children and can help to build a strong economic foundation for the economy of our country. The true value of human life and the effort to protect it goes way beyond this temporary period of the lockdown.