India has close to 15 million people who are slaves, far more than any other country. This information comes from the Australian-based human rights organization, Walk Free, after surveying 162 countries about slavery. The results were staggering with close to 30 million slaves worldwide, far exceeding the previous numbers of people forced into a life of servitude and exploitation.
Besides the widespread sex trade, slavery also takes the form of bonded labor in the granite quarries. It is a vicious cycle that often extends for several generations of the same family. Workers are given an advance of 15,000 rupees (approx. $245), interest free. The money is used for basic expenses plus the workers must buy their own equipment and explosives. They spend all day smashing large rocks into smaller ones. The physical labor is backbreaking and the air is filled with dust. Their daily wage is barely $1 but, somehow, they are expected to pay back their advance. The workers borrow more money out of desperation. That loan is added to the previous one; the cycle deepens and is often passed down through the generations.
Bonded labor in quarries is not just for men. Women are expected to crush the large rocks with the explosives they had to purchase. They also load the stones on trucks, get paid approximately $1 a day and are expected to repay their loan. The cycle continues until the loan is finally paid.
Children also work in the quarries, with their parents, doing various jobs from carrying small stones to handling toxic waste with their bare hands. India’s constitution prohibits children under the age of 14 from working in dangerous occupations including quarries, mines, and factories. The law and reality, however, are often two different things. Various child protection and human trafficking organizations, such as Anti-Slavery International, have witnessed children as young as five years old in quarries and mines.
Some bonded workers manage to get out of bondage. They continue to work in quarries that are managed by the Released Bonded Laborers Association. The work is still backbreaking but they don’t have to give a portion of their pay to the quarry owner. Many of these workers are unskilled and illiterate so they stay with what they know how to do. The caste system also is a factor, especially in rural areas of India.
The Bonded Labor System (Abolition) Act of 1976 was passed and applied to all of India. It was made retroactive to October 25, 1975. It included punishments for those who attempt to continue the practices relating to bonded labor. Such practices included continuing to advance a bonded debt, demanding someone work as a bonded laborer and failure to return property belonging to the bonded worker, carried a term of imprisonment and possibly a fine.
In spite of the laws, bonded workers in the granite quarries are still part of slavery in India today. The children don’t exist on paper. They are “helping” their parents break the rocks for up to 14 hours a day.
Written by: Cynthia Collins