Working on the chain gang

FARIDABAD, India —Teerath Ram came to Faridabad, on the outskirts of New Delhi, to work in one of its many stone quarries. Recruited by a labor contractor who promised he'd earn much higher wages here than he could ever make in his native state of Chhattisgarh, Teerath Ram took a notional "advance" of a few thousand rupees to pay the contractor for getting him the job and agreed to work in the quarry to repay his debt. Fifteen years later, he's still there.

The high wages he was meant to receive never materialized, and at the end of the month when the rock he had risked his neck to blast out of the ground was weighed against the dynamite he'd "bought" from the company store, the owner told him that his wages were just enough to cover the interest on his debt.

"They just kept records of what they loaned me in a notebook," he said. And because Teerath Ram is illiterate as well as desperately poor, "They could change the figures anytime they wanted."

There are literally millions like Teerath Ram in India, which has failed to meet minimum standards to combat human trafficking, according to the 2009 Trafficking in Persons Report released by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton this week.

"India is a source, destination, and transit country for men, women, and children trafficked for the purposes of forced labor and commercial sexual exploitation," according to the report.

Because it has been on the “tier two” watch list — the second-worst category of offenders — for two years, India now faces the prospect of being moved to the “tier three” blacklist of egregious violators next year if it fails to improve its record in fighting human trafficking. Those countries face sanctions under which the U.S. can withhold non-humanitarian aid and oppose aid projects from agencies like the International Monetary Fund and the World Band, though it is likely India would receive a presidential waiver.

The sad thing for India is that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Though they are still being cheated and exploited, laborers like Teerath Ram, for instance, don't even understand that they were the victims of trafficking, since nobody clubbed them on the head and threw them in the back of a truck. Nor do the police.

“The word trafficking has not been defined in India,” said Bhuwan Ribhu, a lawyer with the New Delhi-based Global March Against Child Labor. “There is no comprehensive definition, despite the fact that trafficking in human beings has been banned as [violating] a fundamental right.” That means when people are duped into migrating for work, rather than kidnapped, India's law enforcement agencies rarely recognize them as the victims of traffickers.

Technically, Teerath Ram is now no longer a bonded laborer. He knows exactly how much money he owes the quarry owner and the rate of interest on his debt. He can leave anytime, provided he finds someone else — which would mean another labor contractor — to grant him another loan to pay off his debt. But he still has to pay for the blasting equipment he uses from the quarry to which he's indebted, and the owner and debt-holder still assesses the value of the rock Teerath Ram blasts out of the ground. Naturally, the price of dynamite always seems to climb, while the price for stone plunges.

The quarry workers of Faridabad — only a 15-minute drive from the heart of Delhi — are victims of what some Indian economists are terming "modern bonded labor."

Unlike in the past, when agricultural laborers were forced to work because of traditional feudal ties to landlords or debts that went back generations, these modern bonded laborers migrate to new farms or industrial sites where wages are higher. They enter "freely" into loan agreements with their employers and sometimes even pay off what they owe at the end of the year. This has prompted some economists to argue that the laborers aren't the victims of traffickers, and that they opt to take these jobs because they are better than the alternatives available to them elsewhere, said Professor Ravi Srivastava, a labor economist at Jawarhalal Nehru University.

But, as Teerath Ram knows, the reality is very different. "This is the way the new bonded labor relationships are emerging," Srivastava said. These relationships are not purely economic contracts, even though employees may enter them due to necessity, rather than compulsion. And once employees enter into these relationships, there are high exit costs that the employees did not understand at the outset.

Bonded labor has been illegal in India since the enactment of the Bonded Labor System Abolition Act in 1976, and a series of progressive Supreme Court judgments expanded India's definition of bonded labor to make it more comprehensive.

India's highest court ruled in Bandhua Mukti Morcha vs. the Union of India (1984) that all laborers who are working for below the nationally mandated minimum wage should be presumed to be bonded to their employers. The ruling recognized that economic compulsions can be as powerful as historical feudal relationships and even the threat of physical harm, and that proving exploitation can be a knotty problem when employers keep all the records and their workers are illiterate and mathematically ignorant.

While this law doesn't go so far as to define anybody who is working for less than minimum wage to be a bonded laborer, it shifts the burden onto the employer to prove that his employees are there of their own volition. But despite this progressive interpretation of the law, forced labor, debt servitude and even slavery persist, according to the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganized Sector.

Numbers are hard to come by. The Bandhua Mukti Morcha (or Bonded Labor Liberation Front) claims that as many as 300 million Indian workers should be presumed to be bonded laborers, based on the Supreme Court's definition.

The working conditions for such laborers are grim. They handle hazardous chemicals — and even explosives — without any safety equipment. Crippling and fatal accidents are routine. The work is backbreaking, and the pay is miserable. For instance, the “rapaswala,” a kiln worker who buries the bricks before firing, earns only 8 rupees (or about 20 cents) for every thousand bricks he produces.

Things are no better for Teerath Ram and the other the “modern” bonded laborers of Faridabad, even though they have fought long and hard for their rights, and, according to some definitions, they're free.

Organized by the Bandhua Mukti Morcha (Bonded Labor Liberation Front) in 1984, they have secured a school and access to electricity at the cost of the life of one of their own — allegedly at the hands of company goons. But they still have yet to receive the legally mandated minimum wage for their labor. They handle dynamite and blasting caps without proper safety equipment because their employer requires them to pay for their gear themselves, and fatal accidents are so commonplace no one has an accurate count.

"I owe 20,000 rupees ($500), which I borrowed to buy dynamite and other equipment," said Resham Lal, another quarry worker. "Every month, I repay 250 rupees. Nobody has told me how long it will take me to pay off my debt at this rate, and I keep working and spending more money on equipment and the interest on my loan keeps growing."

Editor's note: This dispatch was updated to clarify a date.

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