India cracks down on bonded labour, but freed workers await compensation

MUMBAI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - India has not paid full compensation to anyone freed from bonded labour since introducing policies in 2016 to fight the crime, which included grants for rescued workers of up to 300,000 rupees ($4,458), officials said.

Children stand next to a labourer working on the banks of river Ganges as they are silhouetted against the setting sun in Allahabad July 3, 2013. REUTERS/Jitendra Prakash/Files

People freed from bondage are given 20,000 rupees soon afterwards, but the remaining compensation is paid only once the perpetrators are convicted.

Yet, there have only been a handful of convictions since 1976 when India banned bonded labour, said Onkar Sharma, India’s deputy chief labour commissioner.

He urged district officials to start conducting trials.

“The solution to this menace is conviction,” Sharma told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

India announced an ambitious goal last year to rescue more than 18 million trapped in bonded labour by 2030. Campaigners say the plan is far-sighted, but flawed in linking compensation to conviction.

“Court trials can go on for years,” said Nirmal Gorana, convener of the National Campaign Committee for Eradication of Bonded Labour. “Who will you give compensation to if the verdict comes after 15 years?”

Makhanlal Aharwal is one of those awaiting compensation if the man who sold him into slavery in New Delhi is convicted.

He had been standing for three days on a corner in the capital, which was a well known spot for contractors to hire labourers, when a man stopped and offered him a good wage.

Aharwal was driven to a gated construction site where he was confined and forced to work without wages for four months before being rescued.

Three years later, he finally received his release certificate - a government document that entitles him to 100,000 rupees ($1,500), jobs and housing.

But none of that has materialised yet.

“A couple of weeks ago some officials came and took my picture,” Aharwal said by phone. “I hope it is for the money.”


About 18 million people in India are unpaid workers or held in debt bondage, according to the government.

Until 2016, freed bonded workers were paid a total rehabilitation amount of 20,000 rupees, which is now dispersed as an interim measure until the entire compensation can be paid.

However, campaigners say it has become harder to access even that amount since the 2016 reforms increased the allowable compensation.

Officials are more reluctant to process bonded labour cases, because they worry that the increased compensation has led to people making false claims, said Kandasamy Krishnan of the non-profit National Adivasi Solidarity Council.

According to labour ministry data, only 250 of the nearly 9,000 claims that it settled in the last two fiscal years were for interim relief under the new scheme.

Dispensing full compensation has proven to be an even greater challenge, but the government is making efforts to bring district collectors on board, said Sharma, the deputy chief labour commissioner.

District collectors oversee programmes such as health services and elections. They are also authorised to conduct trials in bonded labour cases and ensure quick compensation.

The labour ministry and the National Human Rights Commission has held about 20 workshops for district collectors in different parts of India, said Sharma.

“We are putting pressure and also sensitizing district collectors to punish the employers (of bonded labourers),” he said.

In the meantime, people like Aharwal wait for those who enslaved them to go to trial. He said he hasn’t lost hope that he will one day receive his compensation.

“My daughter is getting married on Friday and the money will come in handy,” he said.

($1 = 67.29 Indian rupees)