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Bonded labour

Fighting bonded labour in Nepal

Though it is banned by the government and has all but disappeared from certain locations, bonded labour persists in some parts of the country.

Feature | 02 August 2013
KATHMANDU (ILO News) – The Tarai is the flat agricultural area that spans the length of Nepal, along its border with the Indian states of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand. But this tranquil rural setting harbours an age-old problem: the Haruwa-Charuwa system of bonded labour.

Haruwa are adult labourers who plough mid-sized and large plots of land for high-cast landowners in certain districts of the eastern Tarai, while Charuwa – normally their children – are employed for herding cattle.

There is a third group, called Haliya: landless agricultural labourers in the far western hills. The Haliyas were officially declared “free” in 2008, but some of them still depend on their landowners since they don’t have any other ways of making a living.

A recently launched ILO report that examines conditions in the 12 districts where these systems of bonded labour are most prevalent found that 12 per cent of the estimated 942,000 households were affected by forced labour. That means that at least one member of the family – whether it was an adult or child – was working under forced labour conditions. However, when looking only at the Haruwa-Charuwa and Haliya households, the proportion was a lot higher, at 94 per cent.

Contracts and wages

According to the study, Haruwa-Charuwa received wages that were far lower than the prevailing rates in the labour market. Almost half of them were paid daily with three kilograms of paddy, amounting to 40 to 50 Nepalese rupees (up to fifty US$ cents), while thirty per cent of them were paid annually in cash or kind, at a rate equivalent to NPR 10,000 and 12,000 (roughly US$ 100-130) per year.

There are different types of oral and written contractual agreements between the Haruwa-Charuwa and their employers, especially among those in forced labour. Some have contracts called “Laguwa”, in which the worker receives a piece of land, a share of the harvest, or works for an annual payment or to pay off interest on a loan. In these cases, the male worker’s wife and children are forced to work for the landowner under pressure and threats of losing their house, being refused further loans and violence.

More than 45 per cent of the Haruwa-Charuwa do not have any contracts at all and continue to work for their landlords under different systems of payment. But they suffer from exploitation in various forms, including wage deductions if they are sick and cannot work, as well as physical or verbal abuse.

Some Haliyas face similar circumstances. While many released families have escaped their forced labour situation, the ILO study shows that despite their “liberation” some have no alternative livelihood options or simply cannot repay their loans. They have to pay back the initial amount of the loan plus any accumulated interest on it, which perpetuates their debt bondage. The remaining Haliyas are nearly all working in forced labour.

In the past there was another form of bonded labour in rural western Nepal, known as Kamaiya, that was officially banned by the Nepalese government in 2002.

Child labour is central to the system

Children are part of this system of bonded labour and have to work from early morning till evening, thus excluding them from school. The case of Ram Lakha, a 14 year-old boy working as a Charuwa, is typical.

Ram gets up at 5 a.m., cleans the animal shed and dumps the dung in storage pits. Then, he cleans the house and yard, milks the cows and carries the milk to a shop. He comes back from the shop around 7 a.m., goes on to collect fodder in the farm and returns by 10 a.m. After one hour of rest, he takes the cattle to the fields and stays there till 5 p.m. He comes back with the cattle, feeds them and carries their dung to the fields.

He has dinner once the landowner and his family have finished eating and then does the dishes. It is often 9 p.m. before he gets to bed.

Parents report different reasons for allowing their children to work, including the extra money it brings in, the need to pay off the family debt, or to temporarily replace the labour of an adult family member who cannot work.

Some progress made, but still a long way to go

The Government of Nepal has taken important steps to tackle bonded labour. Following the liberation of the Kamaiyas, the Haliyas organized themselves and put up similar demands to be freed. As a result, the Government announced their liberation in September 2008 and is in the process of approving a National Plan of Action for their rehabilitation. But much more needs to be done, especially regarding the Haruwa-Charuwa system.

With technical support from the ILO Country Office in Nepal, the Ministry of Land Reform and Management (MoLRM) has drafted a Bonded Labour Bill that addresses the elimination of all forms of bonded labour in agriculture, including the Haruwa and Charuwa system.

“The traditional systems of bonded labour have been eroding in the villages due to the opening up of other local and foreign employment opportunities, the commercialisation of agriculture and the activities of human rights groups. But as long as landlessness, lack of tenancy rights, mass illiteracy, lack of skills and training, caste discrimination and other related problems persist, so will bonded labour,” said José Assalino, Director of the ILO Country Office for Nepal.

The International Labour Organization’s two Conventions on forced labour, the Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (No. 29) and the Abolition of Forced Labour Convention, 1957 (No. 105) are among its most widely ratified instruments.

Yet, these problems still persist on an alarming scale, affecting all regions of the world in different forms and to varying extents.

The most recent ILO estimates for 2012 indicate that at least 20.9 million people worldwide are working in forced labour, and the region most affected is Asia-Pacific, with some 11.7 million victims.