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.