In the early hours of the morning, long before dawn has risen, eleven-year-old Yeramma quietly wakes amidst the heavy machinery of the silk factory. For the next twelve hours, she will toil in silence with two or three other children in the Indian state of Karnataka, winding silk with one hour’s pause for rest. The small workers prepare meals from rice provided by the factory owner, knowing that it will be deducted from their wages. Bent over her machine, Yeramma works with the utmost precision afforded by her small but agile hands; a mistake, as minor as a cut in the thread, will result in a beating. Vigilance, she hopes, will keep a fresh scar from her back.

Four years ago, Yeramma was a young student at one of India’s government schools. When her sister became ill and hospital fees quickly surpassed the family’s earnings, she was bonded to a silk manufacturer for 1,700 rupees (US$35). At merely seven years of age, Yeramma’s youth was forfeited to India’s expansive silk industry. She will likely spend the rest of her lifetime paying off $35 in debt.

Yeramma’s testimonial is scarcely unique. In recent estimates, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) found that approximately 217.7 million children ages five to seventeen are engaged in labor around the world. Within Asia and the Pacific alone, 122.3 million children between five and fourteen are economically active. In a special report conducted in 2003, the Human Rights Watch concluded that between 60 million and 115 million child workers exist in India, and at least 15 million of those work as bonded laborers. India’s silk industry alone employs at least 350,000 children, and an overwhelming majority of child laborers are bonded. As in Yeramma’s case, debt of less than $50 often creates an insurmountable obstacle to liberty.

The Tragedy of Bonded Labor
“At work the supervisor used to beat me with a belt. He tied me up and beat me with a belt on my back. He did this two or three times. . . . He tied a chain that was attached to the wall to my leg.” -Nine-year-old bonded laborer in India’s silk industry (Human Rights Watch)

As defined in a Human Rights Watch report, a bonded child is “a child working in conditions of servitude to pay off a debt.” In many instances, the loan is incurred by destitute parents in order to pay for the most basic necessities. This prevents the child from seeking other employment, even in the face of brutal mistreatment. The child becomes a commodity exchanged between parents and employer, much like an expendable good. With physical exertion serving as the accepted currency of repayment, there is an inherent ambiguity in measuring the progress of repayment. Unscrupulous creditors find it increasingly simple to retain laborers long after the real value of labor exceeds the initial amount of loan, and exploit uncertainty to their advantage in keeping wages minimal or nonexistent. Unfortunately, a tremendous percentage of bonded labor goes unnoticed, especially among girls who work from home.

India bears the world’s largest number of bonded child laborers, many of whom work in the agricultural and textile industries. The Indian government has proved incapable of cohesively and effectively combating child labor within its borders. It remains difficult to wage successful war against debt servitude for cultural as well as economic reasons. India’s caste system, in particular, creates an environment that is conducive to bonded labor by maintaining a tradition-based social hierarchy in order to justify the subjugation of “untouchables,” or Dalits. Threats of retaliation from upper castes, the lack of land and economic opportunity, and the long-standing expectation of free labor conspire to keep Dalits, religious minorities, and women in particular, in a state of permanent subservience.

Economic dependency feeds intimidation and the threat of violence prevents many cases of abuse from being reported—or justly prosecuted if they are; thus, the cycle of poverty is perpetuated. In the absence of other credit options, poor villagers lacking financial security and collateral necessarily turn to local landlords, pledging their labor—or the labor of their children—as repayment. Moneylender and master are often one and the same, and families find themselves trapped in a cycle of debt and servitude in which accelerating interest rates are paid in labor value. Like slavery, debt bondage confers tremendous dominance to the master, as the laborer must be available to heed orders twenty-four hours a day. In terms of escaping from this condition, employment changes or refusal to work is virtually impossible. Dissent often invites severe physical and psychological punishment, including torture and beatings.

Additionally, strict social striation fed by the caste system makes defiance markedly difficult. It is therefore vital to acknowledge that any campaign to combat juvenile bonded labor must couple efforts to foster education and reduce poverty with reform of social relations. Addressing long-established power dynamics will no doubt pose a formidable challenge, but it is a crucial step toward comprehensive reform. Otherwise, the struggle to eliminate bonded labor may bypass those groups who are in greatest need of liberation.

Laws and Global Initiatives

Child labor has not escaped the attention of policymakers around the globe. Perhaps the most momentous piece of legislation in recent years was produced at the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1989. Article 32 of the convention mandated that: “State parties recognize the right of the child to be protected from economic exploitation and from performing any work that is likely to be hazardous or to interfere with the child’s education or to be harmful to the child’s health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development.”

Ten years later, Convention No. 182 of the ILO was created to eliminate the worst forms of child labor, stressing immediate action to combat exploitation of children. India has yet to ratify ILO Convention No. 182. Within India itself, the Bonded Labour System Act abolished all forms of bonded labor in 1976. The practice of bonded labor was methodically defined, taking into consideration multiple forms of agreements binding a debtor in service to a creditor. In the decades following the Bonded Labour System Act, India passed additional legislation restricting the use of children in the work force. The 1986 Child Labour Act made provisions for the prohibition and regulation of child labor. It is clear, therefore, that prohibitive legislation on the issue of child service is not lacking. What is absent, however, is a unified, centralized approach to the enforcement of regulatory laws.

In 2006, India declared a ban on child domestic servitude, prohibiting employment of children in households, restaurants, hotels, and other businesses. The new law was intended to reinforce and expand the provisions of the 1986 Child Labor Act, with the ultimate goal of restricting children under the age of fourteen from the labor market. Despite its admirable objectives, the new legislation remains unanchored by enforcement. The announcement of a ban will not deter child exploitation unless the threat of legal repercussion is immediate and authentic. Current searches and raids do occur sporadically and for short periods, but they are cursory and ineffective, leaving both laborers and employers confident that government vigilance is temporary.

Most child workers are highly dependent on their meager incomes and thus have no incentive to abandon their work. New legislation continues to make vague pledges to “look after” families of newly unemployed children, yet the lack of concrete measures to enforce rehabilitation and education has only produced more creative taskmasters. Without an alternative, families will readily accept bribes for labor and employers will devise more effective ways to hide their illicit workers.“I’ve been told to lie low for a few days,” says a 13-year-old roadside worker in Delhi in reference to the new legislation. “There will be raids for three four days, but after that they will stop. And then I can go to work.”

Looking Ahead

Nevertheless, progress toward eliminating child labor continues to be made on a global scale. A 2006 report by the ILO noted that the total number of child laborers worldwide fell 11 percent over the last four years. More importantly, the amount of children employed in the most hazardous occupations has declined by a substantial 26 percent, leaving one to question the origins of this positive trend. With the adoption of the landmark Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1989, the ILO set out to provide direct assistance to states in the battle against child labor. In 1992, supported financially by the Federal Republic of Germany, the International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour was launched. Its initial partnership of six nations has since expanded to 30 members, including the United States, the European Commission, and 86 program countries.

In 1995, the Social Summit in Copenhagen called on all countries to abide by the ILO’s Core Conventions, including specific provisions on child labor. The ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, adopted in 1998, undertook the elimination of child labor as one of its four fundamental principles. Significantly, the ILO’s Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention (No. 182) has achieved an extraordinary ratification rate since its adoption in 1999. Ratifications of Convention No. 182 today stand at 152, while Ratification of Convention No. 138 has doubled since 1999. Such cooperation is evidence of a vital international consensus on immediate action against child labor.

The battle against child labor must be waged on many fronts. It is essential to recognize that “liberating” children does not entail merely removing them from the work force. True liberty requires economic self-sufficiency, and eliminating the child’s livelihood without recompense is a short-sighted blunder with tragic consequences. Most children who are “liberated” in such a way find themselves without resource or direction, alone on the streets or forced into prostitution. It is likewise evident that laws, regulations, and provisions have been established regionally and internationally in order to battle child labor.

Despite such efforts, 60 million children continue to labor in Indian sweatshops. While it boasts the largest number of youths in the world, India has ratified neither ILO Convention No. 138 nor 182— a fact both disheartening and acutely alarming. India’s existing regulations against child labor have shown far too little tangible success, and the public has every reason to be skeptical of the government’s newest ban. India’s landmark Right to Education Bill, for instance, made lofty promises to provide schooling for children ages 6 to 14, yet its guarantees were shaken in 2006 when the government rescinded its commitment to centrally enforce the bill. It is clear that the most basic element of the struggle is missing: the translation of law into action.

Prospective Solutions

The first stage in mapping a plausible solution to the crisis is the recognition of obstacles. It is flawed reasoning, for instance, to assume that all victims of exploitation prefer to abandon their toil. Unemployment does not constitute liberty. Moral imperative dictates a ban on child labor, but what of the child who will fall asleep hungry without his day’s wages? What about the silk weaver who would rather accept beatings than see his sister die because of a lack of medications? The current reality dictates that labor is tantamount to survival for a vast majority of child workers. Compulsory education will continue to fail if families are forced to choose between educating their children and putting food on the table, as short term necessities will always take priority over long-term human development. It is the responsibility of the government and society to change this reality.

Alternatives must be provided to give child workers the incentive to leave indecent jobs. Decent youth employment, according to ILO standards, is one such alternative, with safeguards to make certain that regulations are respected. Yet incentives must also be provided in order to create an impetus toward decent employment. Policies such as tax incentives for compliance with labor laws may require an expansionary fiscal policy but result in increased output and living standards in the long run. Successful implementation will depend upon internal cooperation among India’s government and social institutions. This type of collaboration implies relative stability and functionality in the political system. A policy fruitful in concept, such as the Right to Education Bill, becomes largely ineffective when central authority delegates the financial burden to largely incapacitated states.

Finally, it is important to remedy the social conditions that encourage subservience, including historical traditions of social hierarchy and subjugation. Education, or the active investment in human capital, is the only permanent and self-sustaining path toward freedom from bondage. Although it is agreed that education must accompany the end of servitude, neither goal is easy to realize. A system of incentive and accountability is the necessary precondition for compliance with international regulations. Along with India’s government, many domestic and international organizations, including the World Bank, NGOs, the US Department of Labor, and the United Nations continue to fund and run education programs.

While their efforts are commendable, only legal compulsion coupled with enforcement will ensure that the measures do not bypass children working under force, especially bonded laborers. These programs are entirely contingent on enforcement for success. It is therefore both logical and necessary that individual organizations apply pressure on domestic institutions to ensure follow-through and universal application. While we weigh the obstacles, we must also be aware of the tremendous benefits of success. India is a rapidly expanding economy and if the cycle of child labor is broken, the result will be a series of positive externalities that will serve to perpetuate self-sustaining progress. Economic incentives for decent youth employment create tangible wages, which stimulate individual families to support education.

Investment in human capital naturally lessens the dependency on child labor, creating a rift in the poverty cycle of the poorer classes. It is certainly recommended that India ratify ILO Conventions No. 138 and 182, but ratification is only worthwhile if it can be forcefully implemented. Oversight agents should create detailed inspection reports and immediately make them public. Data should clearly reflect progress in enforcing child labor regulations for every state. Information about individual workers should include age, gender, and occupation, as well as rehabilitation measures taken for recently liberated laborers, and prosecution of delinquent employers. In addition, subsidies, concessions, and entitlements toward industry should be based upon compliance with regulation.

Once again, the only viable approach to ending child labor involves cultivating a respect for the law, and respect can only be achieved if both incentive and accountability are ensured. When the opportunity to acquire skills becomes truly universal, India’s youth will gradually find alternatives to bonded labor. Decent employment will ensure that moneylender and master are no longer one and the same. Legal credit options will finally produce a generation free from the inherited debt that currently feeds a cycle of forced servitude.

If we accept the elimination of poverty as the major challenge of our generation, then we must accept the end of child labor as a basic prerequisite. Child labor, as the ILO attests, is both a catalyst and consequence of poverty, turning children into economic assets that provide debased and dehumanized sustenance. As the face value of the child “commodity” rises, population explosions erupt in regions that are incapable of supporting them and the cycle continues.

“I don’t want to go to the looms,” fifteen-year-old Vimali told a reporter in 2002, “but there is no other way.” India’s government has the duty to preserve its nation’s youth, but the global community must not lose sight of the victims until this is done. It is our collective responsibility to create a new way.