Estimates for bonded labour vary greatly. Some estimates for India and Pakistan alone are as high as 20 million people. The brick kilns have people living and working in the most miserable of conditions. Often beaten and working under the hot sun they have little or no chance of repaying their debt or regaining their freedom. The debt is often generational as the following story shows.
Masih was working in the brick kilns of Pakistan. He did not know his age but thought he was around seventy years old. The debt was not his but maybe his father's or even his grandfathers. He was born in the kilns. His daughters were born and married other slaves and he had to his knowledge several grandchildren. From a small child, all he had known was making bricks. He had no chance of repaying the debt as he barely earned enough for his daily needs. If he had other needs such as medical help the cost was added to the debt. Thankfully a partner charity was able to secure the release of Masih and his wider family and provide a means of self support.
Masih was one of the lucky few. Most have no hope of freedom. Not all are born into slavery but as is the case with many who are caught in slavery, poverty is the catalyst. Religious minorities with little opportunity for education and meaningful employment, the caste system in India, war and famine are all major factors in leading people into debt and subsequent bondage. Often it is the poor who also have little or no access to justice.
Debt bondage differs from forced labour and human trafficking in that a person consciously pledges to work as a means of repayment of debt without being placed into labour against his will. Debt bondage only applies to individuals who have no hopes of leaving the labour due to inability to ever pay debt back. When a slave debtor dies the debt usually passes to the children. The children, having had no life experience outside of the place of labour, have virtually no chance or opportunity to repay the debt. In most situations the 'owner' considers the slave to be his property and physical and sexual abuse is widespread.
Debt bondage has been described by the United Nations as a form of 'modern day slavery' and is prohibited by international law. It is specifically dealt with by Article 1(a) of the United Nations 1956 Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery. It persists nonetheless especially in developing countries, which have few mechanisms for credit security or bankruptcy, and where fewer people hold formal title to land or possessions.
It is our experience that although bonded labour or debt bondage is illegal, there is often no will or no economic incentive for governments to enforce the law. For example, in Pakistan where more than 6000 brick kilns exist, if these were to be closed down the economy of the country would be severely harmed. Even where laws against child labour are broken, attempts to enforce the law by police and other agencies are often negated through corruption and the payment of bribes.
Additionally, many millions are held in slavery and millions more employed with wages that are far below the poverty line of their nations, the insatiable appetite for cheap goods in Western nations fuels the conditions in which slavery thrives. Fair Trade products works to redress this balance but more needs to be done to raise awareness of the suffering that these cheap goods visits on those forced to manufacture them.