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Economic Exploitation by Private Citizens

The largest proportion of forced labor victims (90%) are used by private citizens for economic exploitation—for either primarily labor (68%) or sexual (22%) exploitation (ILO, 2012a). While trafficking for purposes of sexual exploitation has received the lion’s share of media coverage, it is actually debt bondage that entraps the largest number of people.

Debt Bondage The most common type of forced labor worldwide is debt bondage. Debt bondage occurs when a worker is lent a sum of money by an employer and is unable to leave this employment until the debt is paid. However, through a series of mechanisms, the debt can be impossible to pay. For example, the employer may charge enormous interest rates, ensuring the debt continues to grow. The employer may also charge large sums for (substandard) food, shelter, and clothing while paying the worker below-market wages. Many workers trapped in debt bondage are illiterate and thus unable to track their debt. International law defines debt bondage as:

The status or condition arising from a pledge by a debtor of his/her personal services or those of a person under his/her control as security for a debt, if the value of those services as reasonably assessed is not applied towards the liquidation of the debt or the length or nature of those services are not respectively limited or defined. (“Supplementary Convention,” 1957)

Debt bondage is most prevalent in South Asia, including the countries of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal. Debt bondage illustrates very clearly how certain segments of society are most at risk. India has the highest number of people enslaved in the world (Bales, 2004), although bonded labor is illegal in India. Those of the lower castes are much more likely to be in debt bondage. The caste system in India, although outlawed, still permeates the thinking of many Indian citizens. The majority of those in debt bondage (80% to 98%) are from the “Scheduled Castes or Tribes,” or Dalit people (Srivastava, 2005), thus illustrating how discrimination can lead to poverty, which can lead to desperation. People from this lower caste group are traditionally assigned “dirty” jobs such as sweeping, removal of animal and human waste, and snake catching. Historically, higher caste people would not allow themselves to become unclean through performing these tasks, and thus the Dalits were mandated to do so without any payment. Debt bondage originated in this tradition of giving a service to upper caste people without payment (Anti-Slavery International, 2001). Many bonded laborers are in agriculture, but there is a growing number in other areas, including quarries, mines, and brick kilns (Srivastava, 2005). Women tend to suffer disproportionately to men, through sexual and physical abuse, indirect bondage through their husbands, and heavier workloads (ILO, 2005).

The Indian government has set up programs to assist workers who are freed from bonded labor. When the laborers are identified and registered, they are eligible for a grant in money, land, or livestock. They can receive cash immediately to help them get home or get started. However, corruption can prevent this system from working as well as it could. In some cases, corrupt officials help the landlord claim the money in the name of the laborer, leaving the laborer still in bondage and no better off (Bales, 2004). A nongovernmental organization (NGO), Volunteers for Social Justice (, has been working in India to arrange the release of people kept in debt bondage and to punish those who commit crimes against people of the Dalit caste.

Nepal has names for bonded labor, referred to as Kamaiya, Haliya, and Haruwa/Charuwa in different parts of the country (United Nations— Nepal Information Platform, 2012). These workers primarily labor in agriculture but also in domestic labor, brick kilns, and embroidery workshops (Anti-Slavery International, 2009). In 2002, the kamaiya system was legally abolished and there was a program to identify these workers and provide rehabilitation services, including land and access to vocational training. While successful in some instances, in others, the land provided was infertile or the vocational training unrealistic (e.g., providing electrical training in an area without electricity), causing some to be rebonded (Anti-Slavery International, 2009). In 2008, the Nepalese government announced the abolishment of the haliya system, but a law has not yet been passed and rehabilitation services are lacking (United Nations, 2011).

In Qatar, large numbers of Nepalese men were trapped in forced labor while working in construction for preparation for the World Cup; 44 died in a 2-month time span in the summer of 2013. Their passports had been confiscated, they had not been paid, they were denied drinking water while working in the desert, and they were forced to sleep 12 to a room.

Most felt trapped by the debt they owed for transportation from Nepal (Pattisson, 2013).

Debt bondage also occurs in Brazil. Forced labor situations exist on cattle ranches and plantations, with some in the charcoal industry (Seelke, 2012; Shahinian, 2010a). The economic boom in the 1960s and 1970s in Brazil caused a large-scale migration from rural to urban areas. This mass migration increased poverty in the urban areas and resulted in the creation of slums known as favelas. The economic boom passed and the poverty in the favelas worsened, increasing the desperation of workers eager to support their families.

Workers, primarily men, are lured to rural areas by promises of good pay. Recruiters (known as gatos) will go into the slums and announce they are looking for workers. They may use loudspeakers or go door to door to spread the word of these employment opportunities. They promise transportation to the work site, food and salary, and free trips home for family visits. The gatos will even give some men money to give to their families before they leave. They transport them to the work site and buy as much food as the men like on the trip. However, when they arrive at the work site, they are informed they must repay the cost of the food and transport, as well as any money they have already been given (Bales, 2004; Shahinian, 2010a).

Several factors change this activity from simple economic exploitation to forced labor. The work sites are typically located far from home, which acts to imprison the workers since they have no way to leave. They are also often watched by armed guards (Shahinian, 2010a). The gatos will also collect the worker’s state ID card and labor card. As people are unable to gain employment without these documents, the workers are unable to leave because they will not be able to get another job without them. Third, as with debt bondage in India, there is no honest accounting of what the debt owed is and how the worker’s labor counts to reduce the debt (Bales, 2004).

A fourth factor also acts to keep these men in their enslaved conditions: their cultural beliefs about debt. In Brazilian culture, it is extremely important to repay your debts, and a person who does not do so is looked upon very poorly. Thus, the men are reluctant to leave the work site while they still believe they owe a debt to their employers for the transportation and food. Although the men are not informed as to how great a debt they owe or how their wages are used to help pay it off, their cultural sense of honor binds them until the debt is repaid (Bales, 2004).

The situation in Brazil has improved since the first edition of this text. In the 2012 update to his book, Bales credits two government officials for this achievement: government official Luis Antonio Carmago de Melo and the then-president of Brazil, Luiz da Silva (known as Lula). Lula established the National Commission for the Eradication of Slave Labor within 4 months of taking office and freed over 40,000 people. The UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, Gulnara Shahinian (2010a), also praised the Brazilian government for its excellent policies but also noted that there have been few consequences for traffickers, including gatos, landowners, and the corporations who benefit from the labor.

Shahinian (2010a) also noted the recruitment of workers from Bolivia into Brazil to cities such as Sao Paulo for work in the garment industry. Once in Brazil, they are easier to exploit than Brazilians due to the strong Brazilian unions. They are held in debt bondage, with their papers taken and their movements restricted to the factory. Due to their low wages, as well as the fact that they must pay for the use of tools and machines, they will never be able to earn enough to pay the debt.

Domestic Workers Due to the isolated nature of the work, those employed as domestic workers are vulnerable to exploitation. To address the issue of exploitation of domestic workers, in 2011 the ILO adopted the Convention on Decent Work for Domestic Workers. This convention established global minimum standards such as minimum wages, number of working hours, and the right to time off as well as requiring governments to protect workers from abuse (Human Rights Watch, 2011b). However, many remain exploited.

This inherent vulnerability caused by isolation in the home is heightened when workers are removed from their support system. In certain countries, such as Sri Lanka and the Philippines, women are trained to enter the household service of employers in other countries (Waldman, 2005). They will leave their own families for years at a time so they can travel abroad and earn money they cannot earn in their own country. Their destination countries are often in Asia or the Middle East, although Western European countries and the United States are not uncommon. These workers are typically traveling voluntarily and may even have signed a contract stipulating their work conditions and salary. However, even with these seeming protections, their travel can turn to trafficking all too easily. They may or may not be in the host country through legal channels. Even if they have entered legally, employers often take their passports and work papers, thus rendering them unable to flee. If they have signed a contract, it may be torn up or replaced with a new one with different conditions. The workers are told they cannot go to the authorities of that country about the abuse because they will not be believed. Once they are isolated, the workers work long hours every day and are paid minimal amounts of money, or even nothing at all. They are given poor places to sleep, such as the floor, and are forbidden from leaving the house (Vlieger, 2012). A number of domestic workers have been subjected to physical and sexual abuse (Waldman, 2005).

Due to the kafala (sponsorship) system in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, foreign workers are unable to change employers without permission of their original employer, thus trapping them in exploitive situations (Vlieger, 2012). This system places the legal responsibility for the employee on the employer, giving the employer justification for taking the passport and confining the person to the house (ILO, 2013). A form of debt bondage can also exist as the worker may be expected to repay the cost of her plane ticket, recruitment fee, or other costs (Shahinian,


Many women and girls emigrate from Indonesia to Malaysia for employment as domestic workers. Due to the vast numbers being exploited, Malaysia placed a ban on women migrating to Indonesia to work as domestic aides between 2009 and 2011 (Gooch, 2012). When the ban was revoked, a system was put in place to provide women with 200 hours of training before they departed (“Indonesia revokes ban,” 2011). However, none of this addressed the true problem, the exploitation. During the ban, the void was filled by workers from Cambodia who were also exploited (Human Rights Watch, 2011a). After the ban was lifted, Malaysian women were again exploited (Gooch, 2012).

The following is a typical story:

“Sujatmi told me that I would take care of her children and would be paid 300,000 rupiah [$33] a month. I worked at Sujatmi's house for 3 months. Sometimes I did not get any food. I woke up at 4 a.m.

and slept at 10 p.m. I would sweep the floor, wash the clothes, and take care of the children. Sujatmi shouted at me, ‘You are a poor person. You have to know your position, you are here to work. ’ I was not allowed to go out of the house. I had not seen my family since I left home. I was not paid any salary. Sujatmi would say to me, ‘I have your 300,000 rupiah with me and I will take you back... to see your family. ’ She was lying. She never took me home. She hit me when she was angry. Three times she hit. Once she slapped my face and then kicked me above my right hip. It hurt and swelled up. I did not go to the doctor. She laughed when I asked that I want to see the doctor.”Asma, 15, Medan (summarized from Human Rights Watch, 2005)

In some cases, diplomats bring workers from their home country to their posting. If the workers do manage to complain of exploitation, the employer will claim diplomatic immunity. In some cases in the United States, judges have ruled that since the situation was outside of their diplomatic duties, they are not immune to prosecution (Fitzpatrick, 2009). However, this remains more the exception than the rule (Neubauer, 2012).

A large number of children also work as domestic servants, the vast majority of whom are girls. They are regarded as cheaper and more compliant than adults (Shahinian, 2010b). In many cases, this derived from a positive tradition in which children were fostered by a wealthier relative and sent to school in exchange for assistance with chores. However, this tradition has now been perverted in many cases. In Haiti, the term restavek (meaning to stay with) has become a pejorative term for these trafficked children (Shahinian, 2010b). It is estimated that there are approximately 225,000 restaveks in Haiti (Seelke, 2012). The following story summarizes the situation faced by one child:

Ten-year-old Larissa lived in rural Haiti with her family when one of her sisters convinced her to come to Port-au-Prince to work for a family. In exchange, they would send her to school and take care of her. Instead she was forced to rise at 4 a.m. each day to clean, fetch water, and prepare lunch. She was whipped if there was no water in the house. She was also in charge of watching the family's 4-year-old. After the family went to bed, she was then able to go to bed herself—a cloth on the floor. After 3 years, she built the courage to escape. She jumped in a taxi, but had no idea where to go; the passengers took her to the police. (Summarized from UNICEF, 2012)

Descent-Based Slavery In certain countries in Western Africa, such as Mauritania and Niger, situations resembling slavery from centuries ago persist. In these areas, slavery is something into which people are born, and it lasts a lifetime. While slavery has been outlawed by the laws or constitutions of these countries, it continues to exist because the ruling class is not interested in enforcing these bans. It is in these nations that slavery based on racism and skin color continues. Slave owners are of Moorish descent, while slaves are of African descent (Bales, 2004). Slaves may be responsible for herding cattle, performing agricultural labor, or doing domestic work. Slaves are the property of their owners and can be sold or given to a new owner. They are not paid for their labor and are given no choice about their work and lack freedom of movement.

The family of the slave has often served the family of the master for generations. Religious authorities often support the notion that slaves deserve their bondage. Those enslaved are taught that God has placed them in bondage and that to leave would be to disobey God’s will (Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, 2010). These slaves remain tied to their masters through economic, cultural, and psychological bonds. Due to continuing discrimination against their caste, they typically have few options for survival and those that do leave usually live segregated in an adwaba, a camp outside the city (Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, 2010).

National movements have worked to try to stop slavery in these countries. In 2013, Mauritania announced its first governmental agency to provide support for those who have been enslaved (“Mauritania pledges,” 2013). In Mali, those formerly enslaved were given a reprieve in 2013 when the Arab Moors fled Timbuktu after the brief rebellion in Mali’s north (Raghavan, 2013). In Niger, a group called Timidria was founded in 1991 to eliminate slavery and all forms of discrimination in Niger through nonviolent means. Although the organization has faced resistance from the slave-owning classes, it has grown into a strong movement with thousands of members. Timidria operates through multiple methods to accomplish its goals. It holds meetings and uses poetry and drama to spread the messages that slavery is illegal and that members of the population do not have to be enslaved. Members also lobby the government and use the media to spread their message. They provide assistance to former slaves, including microcredit and schooling (Anti-Slavery International, n.d.). A case in which they supported a woman through the legal system is described next:

Hadijatou Mani was born to an enslaved woman in Niger and inherited her enslaved status. When she was 12, she was sold to a friend of her master's as a Wahiya, a slave to both do chores and be a concubine. From this age, she was forced to have sex with her master, to clean, and to work the land. This provided her only a few hours of sleep a night. She was violently beaten at any hint of disobedience. In 2005, her master granted her a ‘liberation certificate' due to the then new law criminalizing slavery as well as negative publicity, but he refused to let her go, insisting she was his wife based on customary law. The first court ruled against him, but the higher court overturned this ruling. Hadijatou Mani, with the help of Timidria, took the case to the Community Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West Africa States and sued Niger for failing to protect her. The court ruled in favor of Ms. Mani and ordered the State to pay her compensation of 10 million West African Francs, which will help her build a new life. (Summarized from ILO, 2009)

Other Industries The situations described earlier by no means cover the totality of labor exploitation. While forced labor can occur in any field, there are some in which people are more vulnerable for several reasons, including a migrant workforce, temporary/seasonal work, not speaking the dominant language of that nation, not holding the necessary documentation to be legally within a nation, and having one’s residency being dependent upon a marriage or family reunification, as in the case of female migrant workers (ILO, 2013; Smit, 2011). These fields include agriculture outside of debt bondage, construction, factories, and seafaring.

Brick kilns are places where trafficking occurs in Asia, including such nations as China, Nepal, and India (Anti-Slavery International, 2009; Shen, Antonopoulos, & Papanicolaou, 2013). Restaurants have also been found to be sites where labor trafficking exists, while children or those with a disability may be forced to beg (“Disabled,” 2011; Smit, 2011).

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