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Inclusive, participatory approaches key to breaking cycles of bonded labour

Published on 17 May 2018

Across the world millions of adults and children are caught in the modern slavery trap of bonded labour – forced to work under terrible conditions to pay off debt owed to moneylenders. It is particularly prevalent in India and Nepal, with bonded labourers slaving in quarries, farms and carpet factories to repay moneylenders – who are often local landlords or business owners. Now, a new briefing on modern slavery from IDS provides much needed insight into appropriate policy interventions and future directions for research.

Brick making in India

The modern slavery trap

The IDS briefing entitled The Modern Slavery Trap: Bonded Labour highlights is based on research conducted with villagers in Nepal and India by IDS research fellows Pauline Oosterhoff and Danny Burns, supported by the Freedom Fund. 

Its key recommendations include prioritising support for local officials to enforce existing laws on bonded labour; and developing inclusive, community approaches to tackling bonded labour, as it derives from dynamics of whole families and communities – warning that focusing on individuals will have limited impact.

Generations within marginalised communities most affected

The briefing highlights that bonded labour disproportionately affects communities living in poverty that are historically socially and economically marginalised.

Generations within families in bonded labour can find themselves trapped in a cycle of bonded labour. For example, if adults who are already in bonded labour require further loans, they will often have to offer their child’s labour to repay the additional debt – thus trapping the next generation into bonded labour. Family members can also become bonded labourers through inherited debt when original debtors within their family die. 

Participatory data provides critical insights into bonded labour

Participatory research involving the gathering of ‘life stories’ from villagers, revealed key factors leading households in particular areas of Nepal into debt bondage and also weaknesses in policy implementation that is enabling the prevalence of bonded labour to persist. 

With no other means of borrowing money available, common factors leading to bonded labour included high-risk loans for paying for urgent health care when a family member falls sick, marriage costs or the cost of sending a family member migrating to find work.

An older woman in bonded labour from Siraha District, Nepal, shared with researchers her experience of how her daughter-in-law has also been forced in to bonded labour after she became unwell, saying:

“When my daughter-in-law became sick I took a loan of Rs 5,000 with an interest rate of Rs 5 from one landlord and a loan of Rs 80,000 from another landlord at the same interest rate. So far I haven’t paid back either of the loans and the moneylenders are asking for their money. My daughter-in-law has been working in a brick factory to pay them back.”

Further reading

Further information and copies of the published research reports are available from the Modern Slavery in India and Nepal project page.

Photo: Brick making in India (Creative Commons CC0)

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