Modern Slavery in India and Nepal

We are currently carrying out three projects on slavery and bonded labour supported by the Freedom Fund. This work is jointly directed by Danny Burns and Pauline Oosterhoff.

Slavery and bondage remain major issues, particularly in this part of the world. There is an increasing body of knowledge, recognition of activists and media attention associated with them. But we do not know how many slaves there are. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates that globally 20.9 million persons are engaged in forced labour of whom around 9.5 million are living in Asia and the Pacific. Others say there may be more than 14 million slaves currently in India.

Geographical focus

Our activities centre on villages in areas with documented evidence of modern slavery. In northern India the main focus is on adult and child brick kiln workers, stone quarry workers and people trafficked into the sex trade.

In the Tamil Nadu region of southern India our work is with people engaged in the fabric industries, and in Nepal it is with those who are in agricultural bondage.

Issues in working on slavery and bonded labour

Modern slavery has many forms and definitions which make it difficult to compare results in different settings:

  • Sometimes categories such as sex work and trafficking are conflated for moral or political reasons, allowing for moral rather than evidence-based planning;
  • Slaves are rare among the total population of any country, and samples would have to be very large to detect affected individuals;
  • The creation of a sample list of an invisible or hidden population of an unknown size is rather hard.

Furthermore households may fear the researchers collaborating with police and other government authorities, or the slave traders or money lenders. Global or national estimates based on surveys take years to complete which is not very helpful for NGOs working on modern slavery.

Meanwhile the qualitative research evidence shows that slavery is not randomly distributed. Slaves come from populations with specific social demographic characteristics originating from particular deprived locations and work in low skilled and labour intensive industries.

We are working mostly in source areas of slavery with a group of NGOs that have interventions in villages where people are working in conditions of bonded labour or from where they are trafficked to various destinations and industries. We are using a working definition for modern slavery that combines three elements: people are paid less than subsistence wages; they have no choice in what work they do; and they are held in this condition through coercion or violence.


The work involves three methodological elements:

  1. Collection of between 250 and 350 life stories in each locality, brought together through a week long collective analysis workshop. This work enables participants to understand the dynamics of how slavery occurs and how it is perpetuated;
  2. An action research process focusing on key issues identified in the narrative analysis. This work enables a wide variety of stakeholders to generate and test solutions, such as community self-help, redirection of NGO programmes or policy interventions
  3. A participatory statistics process looking at the prevalence of slavery, and a number of other socio-economic indicators generated from the narrative analysis. Here we are engaging more than 3,000 households in each locality.


In India our research partner is Praxis where we are working with 16 NGOs in the northern part of the country and 13 NGOs in the south. Our partner in Nepal is ActionAid: here we are working with 8 local NGOs. The interventions and the research are supported by Geneva Global.

Key contacts

Project details

start date
1 January 2015


In partnership with
PRAXIS, India ActionAid
Supported by
Freedom Fund

About this project

Research themes
Inclusive Economies
India Nepal

Recent work


Qualitative Feedback from Community Participants, NGOs and External Stakeholders on Freedom Fund Interventions to Reduce the Prevalence of Bonded Labour in Tamil Nadu

We have structured this report by key activity. This was because structuring by question in India led to some analytical duplication, where critical commentary on some questions was contained in answers to others. We did an initial analysis against Organisation for Economic Co-operation and...

Image of Danny Burns
Danny Burns & 5 others

1 February 2020


Qualitative Feedback from Community Participants, NGOs and External Stakeholders on Freedom Fund Interventions to Reduce the Prevalence of Bonded Labour in Northern India

This report was produced by the Institute for Development Studies (IDS) and Praxis, for the Freedom Fund. It is an output of the programme ‘Planning, learning, monitoring and evaluation activities for the Northern India Hotspot’. The Northern India Hotspot was launched in March 2014,...

Image of Danny Burns
Danny Burns & 3 others

1 February 2020