(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

The modern face of slavery

A Dhaka slum family stands outside their home, Bangladesh, July 2007.  Millions of people have migrated to the city in hope of work.
Manoocher Deghati/IRIN

Tens of thousands of people are working as bonded labourers in rural Bangladesh, say activists. Even though it is illegal, entire families, including children, are bonded to their employers while they struggle to pay back loans.

"Thousands of children are being forced into bonded labour every day because of poverty and their parents' unemployment," Sumaiya Khair, a human rights activist and researcher into child labour in Dhaka, the capital, told IRIN.

"The biggest tragedy is that it all seems to go unnoticed," she said.

According to Anti-Slavery International, bonded labour - or debt bondage - is probably the least-known form of slavery and yet the most widely used method of enslaving people.

Although proscribed by international law, millions worldwide are affected, particularly in South Asia, including India, Pakistan and Nepal.

"Forced labour is the antithesis of decent work," ILO Director-General Juan Somavia said earlier this year. "It causes untold human suffering and steals from its victims. Modern forced labour can be eradicated, providing there is a sustained commitment by the international community, working together with government, employers, workers and civil society."

The face of slavery

Although rare in urban Bangladesh, bonded labour is common in rural areas.

Unlike in cities where workers are paid a daily or fixed wage, the rural workforce mostly has to make verbal arrangements for wages, which are often manipulated by unscrupulous landlords and loan sharks, known as Mahajan.

Still another way to become bonded is being forced to take out a loan due to a temporary financial crisis, often caused or aggravated by a poor harvest or family emergency.

Once bonded, the labourer is then forced to work long hours for little or no pay, often seven days a week.

Many, mostly women and children, end up as domestic servants, working in conditions that resemble servitude. Many suffer physical abuse, sometimes resulting in death, activists say.

"Domestic servants, especially the women and children, are often exposed to inhuman treatment. Few, if any, are concerned with this matter unless a tragedy like a death by torture becomes public," Nazma Ara Begum, director of the Family Planning Association of Bangladesh (FPAB), an NGO that also works with victims of domestic torture, told IRIN.

Photo: Contributor/IRIN
Workers drawn to the remote jungle island known as 'Dublar Char' of the Sundarbans region with false promises of lucrative jobs


In 1972, Bangladesh ratified both ILO Convention No. 29 (1930), the Forced Labour Convention and ILO Convention No. 105 (1957), the Abolition of Forced Labour Convention.

The law prohibits forced or bonded labour and the Factories Act and Shops and Establishments Act provide for inspection mechanisms to strengthen laws against forced labour.

"Forced labour has been present in Bangladesh for centuries. After the liberation of Bangladesh, it changed its form and has taken the new face of various 'contracts' associated with loans taken by poor farmers from the usurers," Mohamad Abul Quasem, founder of the human rights related NGO Uddyam and member of the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society, said.

Human trafficking

Bangladesh prohibits trafficking in persons under the Repression of Women and Children Act of 2000 (amended in 2003); however, there is extensive trafficking in women and children, primarily to India, Pakistan, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and within the country, mainly for prostitution and in some instances for labour servitude.

The exact number of women and children trafficked is unknown.

In 2008, the government created a 12-member anti-trafficking investigative unit that complements the existing anti-trafficking police unit.

Last year, 231 victims of trafficking were rescued and 34 offenders convicted, of whom 26 were sentenced to life imprisonment.

In addition, Bangladeshi men and women migrating to the Middle East and elsewhere for work often face bonded labour as a result of fraud or illegal fees demanded by recruitment agents.

"It is regrettable how crooked recruitment agencies often lure young men to their doom with false promises of jobs. The victims are often unable to contact their loved ones and remain stranded in foreign lands without decent payment and [in] inhuman living conditions. This is the modern face of slavery," Motasim Billah, a manpower consultant, told IRIN.


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