‘Masked’ bonded labour casts a shadow on Karnataka

A “hidden crime” and rampant in unorganised sectors, bonded labour and its prevalence may be grossly underestimated in the State, according to a recent study.

The study has estimated that nearly a third of the informal labour force in and around Bengaluru is potentially in bonded conditions. Extrapolating their findings, they believe there could be lakhs of bonded labourers in the State, who are exploited by a practice banned under the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976. This is in stark contrast to the State government’s assertion that there are less than 5,000 bonded labourers.

The study, which was published in the Journal of Human Trafficking in June, was formally released on Thursday during the inaugural of the two-day State conference on bonded labour. Researchers from the NGO International Justice Mission (IJM), School of Criminology and Justice Studies at University of Massachusetts (the U.S.), interviewed 4,306 labourers in 17 markets in Bengaluru Urban, Bengaluru Rural and Ramanagaram districts.

The underlying assumption was that most bonded labourers were allowed by their “employers” (or, owners) to go to the taluk market once a week to pick up rations. Gathering data after 10-minute interviews, researchers identified that 1,439 or 33.4% of the labourers were “potentially” in bonded conditions — that is, they were given less than minimum wage, movement was restricted, advances were paid for work, among others.

“One must understand that bonded labour is a hidden crime and getting data is difficult, particularly when supervisors are around, or when labourers have fear of repercussions,” says Prathima M., Associate Director, IJM. “In Bagalur market, our enumerators were even threatened and beaten up. So, it becomes difficult to conduct thorough investigations. Instead, our interviews have shown that there are strong indications of the prevalence of the system,” she says.

The survey shows that brick kilns, construction, flower gardens, and rock quarries had a disproportionately high number of bonded labourers, while sugarcane and other agricultural practices had fewer percentage of bonded labourers. Nearly, 30.5% were suspected to have been trafficked, some from within the State, others from Odisha, Tamil Nadu, among others. More than half of bonded labourers were being kept within the factory premises itself, which, researchers believe, was because it gives owners a degree of control over labourers.

However, Krishnappa Kodipalya, Director (Special Economic Programme) at the Rural Development and Panchayat Raj Department, who is the nodal officer for rehabilitation of bonded labourers, dismissed the report as “imaginative and false”. He insisted that various surveys by district administrations have placed their numbers at just 4,500 in Karnataka, with around 1,780 having been rehabilitated since 2015.

“A labourer is bonded only when the Revenue Department certifies them. One cannot assume lakhs of labourers are bonded,” he said, adding that the department, along with teachers, child development officials and revenue department officials, will conduct a survey next year.

In 2015, a government-appointed committee, led by journalist Sivaji Ganeshan, had placed the number of rehabilitated bonded labourers in the State at 7,646, but warned that the banned practice had adapted to new forms to modern agriculture and informal markets.

Many activists believe the current surveys are just a tip of the iceberg and do not fully capture data. L. Mishra, a former Labour Union Secretary, who was involved in drafting the 1976 Act, said that most districts submit NIL reports (that is, no bonded labourers found) to the Supreme Court and the National Human Rights Commission.

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Printable version | Jul 2, 2022 2:09:57 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/karnataka/masked-bonded-labour-casts-a-shadow-on-state/article24999807.ece