The Global Slavery Index 2018 estimates that on any given day there were nearly 8 million people living in modern slavery in India. While the bonded labour system is formally abolished and criminalised, recent research indicated that bonded labour is still prevalent in India. A 2016 report found that in the state of Tamil Nadu, 351 of 743 spinning mills used bonded labour schemes, otherwise known as Sumangali schemes. Similarly in granite quarries, wage advances and loans with an interest ranging from 24% to 36% are used to bond workers. Situations of debt bondage are often aggravated by the need to raise emergency funds or take on loans for health crises.
Vidya tells of how his community do not use the word bonded labourer, but rather daily wageworkers. Although, he acknowledges that this may be because authorities are putting pressure on farmers to end bonded labour. He talks about how he does a variety of small jobs and keeps track of how much he has repaid each landlord in his mind.
I live in my father’s native place. My two children are young, one is 3 and the other is a month old. My father was a daily wageworker and I continue to do that too. Neither of us have ever owned land. I’ll continue to work hard and make good decisions so that I can develop and own my own land. I think I’ll get to that point in 10 years from now. Once I’ve developed I will go and help the others to do the same. My community works hard and everyone takes care of one another. The castes don’t just serve their own but the whole community. Since we all take care of each other there is no need to call the police or complain. The police treat people equally, it may be different in other villages.
I go to work whenever I need money. In the past I worked because my family needed money. My father worked and then I worked for the same landlord after. Father never received an advance, the landlord would give him around 1,000-2,000 each year. My brothers were able to go to school because I worked. One completed 10th and the other 12th standard. When we were younger we feared our teachers even though our landlord said we could complete up to 2nd standard. Now do all sorts of jobs with a variety of landlords, so there isn’t one employer that I regularly go to. I end up working maybe 15 days a month. There’s more work when it rains. If a landlord likes me he’ll ask me to come back the next day I’ll only go back if the landlord treats me well. I do all sorts of small jobs like pulling grains and taking care of cows. We don’t have anything formal setup on how much I’ve worked and how much I need to repay. We both keep track in our minds. Four times a year my landlord would get in the field with his son and four other laborers. Even though the landlord’s son went to school, he continues to work on the farm.
No one uses the word bonded laborer, we’re all considered daily wageworkers.1 It’s probably because all of the authorities are pressuring farmers. The man that I currently work for is a good man. There are some rumors that he mistreats his workers but that’s false, those stories come from outside people. He treated me like family, though I didn’t take coffee or tea, I never entered his house. I learned so much from him and now I believe I can perform well on my own. I decided to leave because I had gotten married. When I told my landlord he was okay with it because I had been a good worker. I had worked for a total of 12 years, 3 years with one landlord and 9 for another. I think 50% of landlords treat their workers well, the other half don’t. Landlords need workers more than the workers need these laborers.
Narrative provided by
Austin Choi-Fitzpatrick, Telling Stories: What Competing Narratives about Slavery tell us about Emancipation (forthcoming)