It was not that Shabnam* was not afraid, or less afraid than her parents; she had been told by the social worker that government processes would take time, different departments would ask one the same questions again and again—the Revenue Inspector, the Tahsildar, the Labour officials and some random people waiting at the District Commissioner’s Office for other work…
All these officials were trying to gauge what kind of wrongs had been committed against this family of three adults and an infant—Shabnam, her parents and her nephew—as they worked at a sericulture farm in Chikkaballapur district of Karnataka. And they would decide whether those wrongs were serious enough to be booked under the crime of Bonded Labour.
Shabnam and her middle-aged parents had been working at the farm for nearly three years at a wage of Rs. 71 per day per person against the government-mandated Rs 316 minimum wages per day per person. As a family, they were paid about Rs.1500 a week. Once, when Shabnam’s father Parvez* visited his home in Kolar district, leaving behind the rest of the family as a surety against his return, he was beaten and brought back by the owner’s men.
The usual contentions when deciding on a bonded labour case are the degree of ’bondage’ or force, ‘whether the advance taken was indeed the ‘force’ that compelled the labourers to continue working at that particular place, whether they were locked in a room, whether they really didn’t have a choice to work elsewhere (to pay off the advance/debt), whether physical force was used to restrain them, whether the 12-16 hour work day had enough breaks, how insufficient were the wages and so on.
The interpretation, of the legal definition of bonded labour to the practical living and working conditions of the labourers, can be a long and complex process for all parties involved: the labourers on the one end, the government on the other and to some extent (if at all) for the perpetrators as well; some labourers like Shabnam can sustain their courage, patience and hope for a better future throughout the multi-day process at the government office. For many others, including government officials, the process can be quite demanding. The challenge to keep up with the pace and high demands of the system—including many rounds of enquiries, limited victim sensitivity, balancing legal requirements and actual, complicated victim experience, differences in language (in case of out-of-state labourers)—often means that only limited and superficial actions are taken to support the victims and almost nothing of consequence to the perpetrators to deter them from committing the crime again.
As a social worker witnessing these challenges first-hand, there are many strong impressions—government officials are generally at the receiving end of criticism, but their lack of resources and time constraints are undeniable; the inconvenience to the owners is almost minimal when compared to the demands placed on the labourers to ‘prove’ the injustice that they have been subjected to. This post is to offer a word of deep respect for the gigantic courage that such labourers demonstrate, as the people with the least amount of power in such situations. The courage of the ones who are wronged, is the most valuable- to be cultivated and to be protected, by government and non-government entities alike.
A silk reeling machine at a sericulture unit.
*Names of people changed.