23 minutes | May 30th 2019

Bonded labour: Listening to the voices of the poor and marginalised

Play
Like
Play Next
Mark Played
In Episode 5 of Series 4, we talk to Pradeep Narayanan Director-Research & Capacity Building and Anusha Chandrasekharan (Senior Programme Manager - Communications) from Praxis, an India-based not-for-profit organisation which works to democratise development processes and institutions in order to ensure that the voices of the poor are heard and acted upon.  00.00 – 3.39 Praxis is a development organisation based in India, aimed at supporting poor and marginalised communities. It works with the most marginalised communities who would otherwise be excluded such as the “dalit”communities, and particularly dalit women, on matters which are important to them. 17% of the Indian population are dalit(untouchables), which is the lowest category of people in the Indian caste system. Although it is easy to gain access to these communities in both rural hamlets and urban slums, the challenge is to how to get their concerns in front of policy makers. Referred to as ground level planning, a range of methods are used; participatory video, digital media and face to face meetings with policy makers.  3.40 – 12.10 The discussion moves on to describe the relationship between the dalit and higher caste groups in relation to bonded labour and forms of modern slavery.  Modern forms of slavery in India have emerged from the caste system where high caste landowners engaged dalit as bonded labour. The dalit were effectively indentured to landowners, working on the land and receiving various forms of payment. This practice was abolished by The Bonded Labour Act 1976. Urbanisation has led to significant numbers of dalit living in underserved settlements or slums, seeking work in manufacturing industry in the city. They are vulnerable to exploitation and a system has evolved very similar to traditional bonded labour whereby money is advanced to the poor and marginalised, who then are obliged to work to pay off the debt. The very poor are vulnerable because they do not have easy access to cheap or safe credit and so cannot cope with emergencies that may arise, for example ill health, or other expenses such as weddings, funerals, and at festival times. Employers’ agents take advantage of the situation to advance money to vulnerable families who are then required to “work off” the loan. This involves long hours, bad working conditions, physical and sometimes sexual abuse of women. There are also instances of people not being paid for their work; e.g. the brick industry. The workers are not free to leave. Employers operate via a climate of fear and intimidation which is used to control the workers. Working with the labourers is challenging because they are in fear of the employers, and unwilling to speak about their situation or even to accept that they are in bondage.  09.55 – 14.20.  At this point a link is made with  research by Austin Choi Fitzpatrick, who writes of a cultural acceptance of debt bondage in the villages, which is also borne out by the experience of the speakers. This acceptance on the part of the labourers creates a situation whereby labour exploitation can occur. The question is how to change the labourer’s awareness of their situation. Praxis is working with Freedom Fund on a programme which involves;  The formation of an action research group within a community which collects case study information, identifies what drives debt bondage, for example health, and works with the group to understand the link between poor health and bondage. The collection of evidence within and outside the group leads on to discussion, and the group are able to define what they understand by the term bonded labour and to relate it to examples of bonded labour within their local community. Once the group have identified examples of bonded labour the next step is to encourage action at the local level, which may be in terms of questioning traditional attitudes and practices and raising petitions.  14.20 – 17.17 The discussion now moves on to review the outcomes of the interventions made by Praxis. The main outcomes are: At the local level the development of action groups and raising community awareness is moving people out of debt bondage. However, on its own this does not offer the poor a viable alternative. There is very little data on bonded labour. Consequently, it is difficult to get policy makers to address the issue. Work with the Freedom Fund initiative feeds into this issue and is helping to raise awareness. They are seeking to re-open the discussion on the Bonded Labour Act 1976 to develop discourse with the government. They also want the focus to move away from citizen – state, and to broaden the focus to include major businesses and in particular the supply chains of those businesses. Praxis is a partner in Corporate Responsibility Watch which monitors the top 100 Indian businesses looking a number of indicators including their supply chains to see how compliant they are with labour laws, whilst at the same time influencing government policy. This is, however, a slow, incremental process.  17.17 – end  Todd reflects on the work of Amartya Sen on democracy and famineand wonders whether in the world’s largest democracy whether a similar argument could be applied to debt bondage and bonded labour. The situation in India presents a number of constraints. The democratic process, although not broken, is flawed. Whilst current laws list basic entitlements which should be open to all this is not the case Two related issues are; getting the government to look seriously at the links between poverty, social rights, and bonded labour, and also to be able to hold government to account. A further constraint is that, in this multi-cultural society, development is not yet seen as the sole issue to be addressed. Removing the barriers to achieving basic rights is the key because it is the barriers which cause vulnerable communities to become trapped into bonded labour in the first place.
Play
Like
Play Next
Mark Played