By Stella Paul
HYDERABAD, India (IPS) – The southern Indian city Hyderabad is witnessing a construction boom as it prepares to become the joint capital of two states – Andhra Pradesh and the soon to be formed Telangana.
Buildings are coming up in almost every neighbourhood.
Under one such building coming up, three-year-old Amlu is scrubbing a plate. Her parents Sai Mohan, 33, and Sri Lakshmi, 29, work at the construction site. Mohan is paid the equivalent of 50 dollars a month, Lakshmi works without payment.
With both parents labouring all day, Amlu is learning to take care of herself.
Mohan and Lakshmi come from Nelapatla village in Nalgonda district, 39 km east of Hyderabad. Mohan gave up cotton farming in 2011 after several crop failures, and migrated to Hyderabad to work for a real estate developer from whom he had taken an equivalent of 500 dollars as a farm loan.
Mohan was employed as a guard, but a few weeks later he was asked to do other work such as laying bricks, making concrete, and plastering walls. Unable to handle so much work alone, Mohan brought wife Lakshmi to help him.
“Our employer says if I don’t work, he won’t pay my husband any salary,” Lakshmi told IPS.
Asia has nearly 12 million forced, according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO). The Global Slavery Index 2013 report suggests there are nearly 14 million forced labourers in India alone. They are mostly employed at construction sites, farms, brick kilns, mining quarries, private homes, and in the sex trade.
“Today some people are still being born into hereditary slavery, a staggering but harsh reality, particularly in parts of West Africa and South Asia,” the report says.
Lakshmi comes from a Dalit community of shoemakers. The ministry of labour and employment in India estimates that 86.6 percent of bonded or forced labourers belong to Dalit and tribal communities.
Mary Madiga, a Dalit rights defender in Hyderabad, says the caste system makes Dalit workers, especially women, vulnerable to exploitation. Now 39, she spent six years in Nalgonda as a forced farm labourer. When her family tried to send her to school at age 14, they were beaten and thrown out of the village by her employer, she said.
“I was lucky to escape, but many others stay in the job due to fear of physical violence,” Madiga, who is contesting to be a member of the state legislative assembly told IPS.
Fear of physical violence forces thousands of migrant women into the sex trade, says Jayamma Bandari, member of the planning committee for the National AIDS Control Programme. “Hyderabad has over 25,000 sex workers. Sixty percent of them are rural women who migrated to the city and were forced into sex work,” Bandari told IPS.
In 1998, Bandari came to Hyderabad with her husband who then confined her to a room and forced her into sexual slavery for three years before she was rescued by a city-based NGO.
“A forced sex worker is often underfed and tortured by her employer. Almost every such sex worker has marks of torture on her body,” says Bandari, who runs the Chaitanya Happy Home in Hyderabad, a shelter for minor girls of sex workers rescued from the clutches of pimps.
Social norms also lead women into forced labour, says Tathagata Sengupta from the group Solidarity for Brick Kiln Workers. On Jan. 27 this year, Sengupta led a team that rescued 60 forced labourers from a brick kiln near Hyderabad. Over half of them were women, including one in an advanced stage of pregnancy, says Sengupta.
“At brick kilns, most migrant women workers are married to men who took loans from a local moneylender to meet the expenses of their marriage. After marriage, the moneylender forces both husband and wife to work to recover the loan. Since social norms require a good wife to share her husband’s burden, the woman doesn’t refuse,” Sengupta told IPS.
Under India’s Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976, forced labour is punishable by three years imprisonment. But conviction for forced labour is almost unheard of, says Satyavati Kondaveeti, a city-based lawyer associated with the Andhra Pradesh Human Rights Commission.
Employers of forced labourers make only verbal agreements, and it is threfore not possible to prove that the labourer was forced, says Kondaveeti. “They are smart, know the loopholes of the law well, and use these to their advantage.”
Most activists believe that organising workers is an effective way to end forced labour. “In an organised sector, it is easy to track or monitor the growth or decline of the industry. We can count the number of workers and, through workers unions, find out how well the law is being followed. None of this is possible in the unorganised sector,” says Bandari.
Officials say that India must address the reasons for worker migration if it has to end forced labour.
Nalgonda’s district collector T. Cheeranjivalu, the highest-ranked official in the district administration, says government programmes like the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) and the National Rural Livelihoods Mission (NRLM) are helping.
“These programmes are designed to provide livelihood security and create durable assets in villages for poor people who are vulnerable to migration,” he told IPS.
Despite accusations of widespread corruption in these schemes, Cheeranjivalu says they are the most effective tools to end forced labour, especially for women. “There is no better way to help a rural woman than providing her a village-based job. Once she migrates, it is very difficult to restore her life.”
Meanwhile, Lakshmi hopes that Amlu will be able to go to school some day. “I and my husband can’t read or write. But if our daughter is educated, she can have a free life.”
Photo credit: Stella Paul/IPS.