The Ties That Bind

The United Nation International Labour Organization (ILO) Global Report for 2002, A Future without Child Labour, estimated that there were around 179 million children involved in the child slavery industry. Disturbingly, at least 8.4 million of these were engaged in the worst kinds of slavery including debt bondage, forced labour, trafficking, prostitution, forced into the armed services and pornography. Contemporary forms of slavery exist in different forms and bonded labour is also a type of slavery. It is an abuse of an individual’s fundamental human rights and affects the lives of millions of people particularly in the Asia-Pacific region.

Despite the enactment of international and domestic legislation, these types of practices continue to persist. However, governments are increasingly bowing to pressure from organizations to redress the problem. Conservative estimates suggest that the number of adults involved in bonded labour range from 20 million to 40 million. Bonded labour of children is a particular type of slavery. An individual becomes a bonded labourer when his labour is used to repay a loan. Not only is his labour given, but often that of his wife and his children. The ‘debt’ maybe carried by the whole generation of one family.

The Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights (OCHR) observes that UN reports “reveal that there are no clear distinctions between different forms of slavery. The same families and groups of people are often the victims of several kinds of modern slavery for example, bonded labour, forced labour, child labour or child prostitution.” The Free the Children Organization stresses that the definition of ‘child labour’ varies:

“Child labour usually means work that is done by children under the age of 15 (14 in some developing countries) which restricts or damages their physical, emotional, intellectual, social or spiritual growth as children. Sometimes work does not harm children and may even help them to learn new skills to develop a sense of responsibility. Most people agree that when we speak about child labour, we mean labour which is intolerable or harmful to children, or which denies them their right to fully develop, to play or to go to school.”

Bonded labour encourages both physical and sexual exploitation of men, women and children. Oruvingal Sreedharan and R. Muniyappa’s extensive investigation into the plight of chained bonded labourers of Karnataka, India in 2000 revealed the consequences of persons held in bonded labour. Despite the government’s assurances that bonded labour had been abolished, they alarmingly found that this was not the case. Bonded labourers were a reality, living in huts without adequate roofing, without drinking water facility and in places unfit for human habitation. Children were also forced to work alongside their parents.

OHCHR state that “although in theory a debt is repayable over a period of time, a situation of bondage arises when in spite of all his efforts, the borrower cannot wipe it out. Normally, the debt is inherited by the bonded labourer’s children.”

A classic example of how debt bondage works in practice is provided by the following case study from The Free the Children Organization. They cite the example of Anwar. His story reflects the realities and situations of millions of other children. He is aged seven and began weaving carpets in a village in Pakistan in the Sindh region.

“He was never asked if he wanted to work. When interviewed, Anwar was knotting carpets for 12 to 16 hours a day, six to seven days a week. He was told repeatedly that he could not stop working until he earned enough money to pay an alleged family debt. He was never told who in his family had borrowed the money, nor how much. Anytime he made an error in his work, Anwar was fined and the debt increased. Once, when his work was considered too slow, he was beaten with a stick. On another occasion, after a particularly painful beating, Anwar tried to run away, only to be apprehended by the local police, who forcibly returned him to the looms.”

Oruvingal Sreedharan and R. Muniyappa focused on the implementation of the law. Their horrific findings exemplify the continuance of this anarchic practice. Bonded labour can effect any one of any age. Child Right Worldwide state that “children as young as six are sometimes pledged by their parents to landlords as bonded labourers. In exchange for a loan, parents engage their sons, ranging in age from 10 to 14, as bonded labourers.” They also highlight the injustices served out by the landlords.

“In many cases bondage is intergenerational; with child bonded labourers replacing their fathers when the latter have become too old or too weak to work themselves. The initial loans that form the basis for this intergenerational bondage are often quite small. However, the borrowing family, usually illiterate, is unable to understand interest calculations performed by the landlord. Written agreements are viewed as unnecessary and interest rates can range as high as 400 percent.”

Various legislative provisions have been enacted at the international level pledging that State parties to the Convention will take the appropriate steps to abolish slavery and debt bondage. However despite legislation to prevent the abuses described above, it remains insufficient to tackle the underlying cause of this problem.

Human rights organizations report the excessive and continuing abuse that labourers experience as direct result of bonded labour including rape, physical assault, violence and other crimes. There is currently many dedicated charities, organizations and researchers highlighting the plight of individuals forced into bonded labour and the injustices they face.

The Free the Children Organization says, “it is easy to get overwhelmed by the issue and then proceed to dismiss it.” The International Labour Organization is commendably working to eradicate child bonded labour. In 1998, it launched a landmark International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour: IPEC. “The programme focuses on direct action with children and their families, on strengthening government machinery responsible for law enforcement, social welfare and education at the local, provincial and national levels, and on strengthening the capacities of NGOs.”

Simrin Singh, Senior Programme Officer (South Asia Desk), IPEC, ILO, Geneva is currently handling a number of IPEC projects in Pakistan. Simrin tells me that the 1998 project ended in 2002 and was implemented in 18 different locations in Pakistan and was funded primarily by the European Commission. With the help of Government and regional organizations, the project was a success. Simrin is dedicated and committed to the projects she presides and works on together with her colleagues.

“The National Child Bonded Labour project benefited more than 1000 working children of which approximately 20% were female children,” Simrin says. “Working hours were also reduced substantially by three to four hours daily for some of the working children targeted by the projects as a result of their attendance in NFE centres. Older working children and their at-risk of entering child labour siblings, were also provided with pre-vocational and vocational training and career counselling for better and ‘decent’ work when they are adults.” Sherin Khan, the Coordinator of the Programme Support Unit at IPEC, ILO, in Geneva tells me she worked on the same project as Simrin when it was in its initial stages of implementation. From her perspective the project was definitely a success and is testimony to the fact that child bonded labour can be eradicated.

“The project strategies were those that IPEC had tested in Pakistan (and globally),” Sherin explains. “Among these was the family approach, where families of identified and targeted children received services through or linked to the project. Significantly, the project had a Government of Pakistan financial contribution, in addition to the donor contribution through ILO.”

Among the NGO’s working to help children trapped in bonded labour is the Mukti organization. Mukti means ‘freedom’. One of its co-founders, Swami Ambikananda Saraswati, is a formidable and impressionable yogini who has dedicated her life not only to teaching yoga but also implementing the karma-yoga principle by contributing and campaigning to bring the issue of bonded labour and related slavery relationships to the attention of the government authorities. She also credits Swami Agnivesh who initially conceptualized the idea of setting up Mukti.

Swami Ambikananda was born and brought up in Africa. “I grew up in a country where anti-apartheid issues were at the forefront,” she tells me. “I was being raised in the 1960s when social issues were making an impact.”

She is now founder of the Traditional Yoga Association, is a dedicated yoga teacher and charity worker. She is also a writer and researcher, has published numerous books and is at the forefront of taking yoga principles and practice to countless individuals. “Your spirituality, your yoga is not something that you can isolate and fragment from the rest of your life, it has to make the life you are living much more accessible,” she explains. After her spiritual training, in 1979, she came to the United Kingdom, where she settled and also began to teach yoga. In the early 1990s she met Swami Agnivesh, Chairperson of the UN Trust Fund on Contemporary Forms of Slavery who introduced her to the realities of slavery in a world context.

Domestic legislation has been enacted but this is only the beginning of the struggle to tackle bonded labour of men, women and children. Swami Ambikananda agrees that enforcement of the law is desperately needed to help eradicate this barbaric practice. She has witnessed many cases of injustice and she gives one poignant example on how difficult it is to enforce the law. In December 2002 and January 2003, Swami Ambikananda was working at the Mukti office in India. “Some labourers had come from a quarry. They had walked in some 30 or 40 miles to the Mukti offices to see if something could be done (about their situation in forced bonded labour). So some of the workers from BMM (at Mukti) went out to assess the situation and concluded the labourers were indeed ‘bonded labourers’. The second thing (for the BMM) is to make representations to the local magistrates.” When the BMM went back to the village with the magistrates they found that the whole village of labourers had disappeared.

“The BMM got a phone call at the office. One of the labourers told (us) ‘we were picked up in trucks at midnight and had been dumped in the Rajasthan desert. There are children and babies’. The problem is at that time of year in the desert temperatures drop to minus 20 and they didn’t have a blanket between them they didn’t even know where they were. We had to rush around to find out where they were and so just enforcing the law is tricky.”

I ask in her view why doesn’t the government intervene to help, she says: “It is because we are prepared to be silent in order to protect our own lifestyles, we are prepared to become silent.”

She herself has seen slavery first hand, since her grandmother’s family had been taken to South Africa as indentured labour from South India, another form of slavery. She visited India to try and understand how slavery existed and was horrified to witness the true extent of child bonded labour. Instead of just giving money to the children she decided to bring these children, the gift of education – skills based vocational, practical learning, which could then be used to improve the quality of life, to make them independent.

The schools that Mukti established were designed not to take the children out of their environment completely, which is what some charities were offering, but to keep them connected to their family and community. Swami Ambikananda also set up a Yoga Association where like-minded people could share their skills and help to get the project moving. She tells me when the project was in its inception, the vision was truly to implement karma yoga – namely helping the community selflessly, without expectation of gain or reward. The charity was Yoga Association and the Mukti project was set up as part of that.

One popular method of raising money and awareness for the Mukti project is the sponsored Surya Namaskarathon. She encourages all practitioners, students and non-students of yoga to contact Mukti and get involved in at least the namaskaram every year to raise money for the charity.

Another school that Mukti is currently working with is aptly called Karam Marg, meaning the ‘way of action’. Karam Marg was the brainchild of a group of children who lived on the Delhi train platforms and some adult friends. Mukti have granted Karam Marg funds so that 30 children can attend school and learn skills that will help them seek employment and become independent. The success comes from the fact that the home is managed by the children themselves. “Their dream is to set up a village of these children so we’re involved with them too.”

Aside from raising funds and the profile of the Mukti project, Swami has recently set up a further project, the Live Your Yoga Project. This is a month by month course enabling individuals to learn and practise yoga. All the proceeds after tax are donated to Mukti. “Change happens,” she says. “Things can’t happen otherwise and sometimes when I speak to teachers and say ‘please lend yourself to this cause’ and they say ‘what has this got to do with my yoga?’”

Yet even in the destitution of bonded labour, the spirit and hope of children shines brightly. Swami Ambikananda poignantly encapsulates the aspirations of the children trapped in this living hell: “Children have such spirits. You will find a seven year old breaking rock, he is hungry and still there is that spark in his eyes and he says, ‘I want to be a doctor’. When will humankind realise that children, too, are our dowry? They can bring us to world peace. One would think it would break their spirit, but that’s not what I see.”

Halima Malik for Yoga Magazine

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