Joint written statement submitted by Franciscans International (FI), a non-governmental organization with general consultative status, Anti-Slavery International, the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (GAATW) and the Swiss Catholic Lenten Fund, non-governmental organizations with special consultative status

Debt bondage (also known as bonded labour) is probably the most common, but least known contemporary form of slavery today. Debt bondage affects many millions of men, women and children across the world. It occurs in a variety of sectors, including agriculture, logging, construction, domestic work, brick kilns and the textile and garment industry.

A person becomes a bonded labourer when their labour is demanded as a means of repayment for a loan, often for a very small amount such as the cost of medicine for a sick child. Once in debt, the person loses all control over their conditions of work and is forced to work long hours, often for seven days a week, for very little or no pay. The value of their work is invariably greater than the original sum of money borrowed. The debt becomes inflated through charges for food, transport and interest on loans, making it impossible to repay and trapping the worker in a cycle of debt. Entire families may be bonded, including children who work alongside their parents to help repay the debt. In some cases, the debt will be passed down through generations. Bonded labourers are often subjected to other forms of coercion including violence and restrictions on their freedom of movement.

Poverty, social exclusion, and the failure of governments to implement legislation lie at the heart of debt bondage. Bonded labourers are disproportionately members of groups which are discriminated against, including scheduled castes, religious and ethnic minorities, indigenous people, women and migrant workers.

The 1956 the UN Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery defines debt bondage as “the status or condition arising from a pledge by a debtor of his personal services or of those of a person under his 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 and nature of those services are not respectively limited and defined”.

The following cases illustrate that debt bondage is still used as a means to enslave people worldwide.

Combating debt bondage in Brazil

In Brazil, the vast majority of workers in forced labour are in debt bondage. The main sectors employing forced labour are ranching, deforestation, agriculture, logging and charcoal.

Workers are given an advance in their home towns and persuaded to come and work in the Amazon during the appropriate season. Once they arrive at the farms they are told that they will have to pay for their transport, food and lodging, as well as pay back any advance they have been given. They are charged a very high rate of interest and find that their salaries rarely cover their costs. In some cases they become more and more indebted as they have to buy everything they need at inflated prices from the estate shop.

In the work camps workers are often watched by armed guards, and threats of violence against them and their families are frequent, making it impossible to escape.

Since 2003 the Brazilian Government has shown its commitment to tackling forced labour, and has made considerable progress, through policy initiatives including the National Action Plan for the Eradication of Slavery (2003), a second National Action Plan (2008), the creation of a National Commission for the Eradication of Slave Labour, and the establishment of the Special Mobile Inspection Group (a federal and multi-agency group capable of challenging slavery in remote areas). According to government figures, 4,634 forced labourers were released from remote ranches and plantations during 2008.

Debt bondage in diplomatic circles in Germany

Despite debt bondage being legally recognised as a contemporary form of slavery in Germany, Ban Ying, an organization working for the rights of migrant and trafficked persons, has reported cases of migrant domestic workers in diplomats’ households, suffering conditions that amount to debt bondage. Widespread physical and psychological abuses are also reported. In one case, a domestic worker from Indonesia employed by a Yemeni diplomat reportedly worked more than 4 years with no pay. The employer was protected from criminal prosecution by his diplomatic status.

Migrant domestic workers employed by diplomats are particularly vulnerable due to the special legal provisions which apply uniquely to them as employees of diplomat agents. These workers are often forced to surrender identification documents to their employers. Once a visa application is made by a domestic worker, the German Federal Foreign Office issues a ‘diplomatic identification’ card which replaces the residence permit which is required for other categories of migrant workers. As the card is tied to a particular employer, if employment is terminated the employee immediately loses his or her residence status regardless of the circumstances of the termination. Employees are not authorised to change employers.

The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations (1961) states that the inviolability and protection of diplomatic representation extents to the private residence of diplomatic agents. Therefore migrant domestic workers working for diplomats have little to no access to redress for breaches of employment conditions and abuses of their human rights by their employers. Law enforcement agents are also barred from investigating any such reported abuses.

Migrant workers affected by debt bondage in Hong Kong

In interviews conducted by the Association of Indonesian Migrant Workers-Hong Kong (ATKI-HK), Indonesian migrant domestic workers describe payments of up to HK$21,000 (US$2,700) to recruitment agencies in work placement fees. Indonesian legislation states that Indonesian migrant workers must go through a recruitment agency in order to migrate and agencies must in turn offer pre-departure training.

In practice migrant workers report that Indonesian recruitment agencies present the loan to cover training costs as a pre-requisite to employment overseas. Migrant workers are made to sign an agreement to repay the loan upon arrival in Hong Kong. Agencies often instruct employers to deduct repayments from employee’s salaries and to pay the equivalent directly to third party finance companies. According to the Hong Kong Labour Ordinance, an employer is only allowed to deduct a maximum of 25% of the migrant worker’s monthly wages.

The Hong Kong government recently prohibited employers from repaying debts to a third party on behalf of migrant domestic workers. Despite widespread contravention of these regulations, excessive placement fees and long debt repayment periods compel migrant workers to remain with their employers as long as possible in order to repay their debt and to start earning a full salary.

The precariousness of the immigration status of these workers often leaves them with few safe avenues through which to seek redress if facing exploitative and abusive working conditions in Hong Kong. Should they remove themselves from their employment situation, under Hong Kong law, they subsequently have just two weeks leave to remain. They are often forced to return to the recruitment agency which facilitated their original placement in order to seek alternative employment as their passports and employment contracts are usually held by these agencies. At this point their previous placement fee repayments are lost and full fee payment starts again.

Agricultural debt bondage in India

Debt bondage affects millions of people in India. In a typical agricultural debt bondage agreement in India, a labourer enters into bondage by taking a small loan of Rs. 1000 to 5000 (US$20-100) as an emergency subsistence requirement from a landlord. He works for up to 18 hours and receives a daily wage of 1.5 kilos paddy (worth Rs.10.-). He loses double the wage for one day’s absence. The labourer’s wife is forced to work for free one day a week, and endures inhuman and degrading treatment. He is kept below subsistence level, ensuring that he is never able to repay his debt. As a result, after death, the debt bondage is inherited by a surviving family member.

Debt bondage in India originates in the customary forced labour extracted from the members of the socially discriminated Dalit (‘Scheduled Castes’) and Adivasis (‘Scheduled Tribes’) communities by caste landlords in the feudal society. The practice not only continued after independence but grew as a result of increased poverty, reinforcement of social (caste) discrimination and displacement of the poor from land and forest based livelihoods.

India was the first country in South Asia to enact progressive legislation in this regard: The Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act (1976) prohibits debt bondage. The law provides clear criteria for identification of bonded labourers, a mechanism for their release and rehabilitation and penal action for offenders.

During the first 15 years following the enactment of this law approximately 250,000 bonded labourers were released and rehabilitated. Since 1993 however, only 35,000 were released.

Debt bondage in the Republic of Congo (Congo-Brazzaville)

Indigenous people in the Congo are trapped in debt bondage by the dominant ethnic group, the Bantu who sell them goods including clothes, food, medicine and cigarettes at inflated prices and add exorbitant interest rates if they are not paid on time. The debts are used to force indigenous people to provide free labour to the Bantu and are accompanied by threats and the use of physical violence if they do not comply. In other cases they are promised a day’s wage of up to 500 CFA (US$1.20) for agricultural work or hunting. Sometimes this is not paid because the Bantu claim that the indigenous people have not done enough work, or it is paid ‘in kind’, in which case they receive goods which do not match the value of the work they have done. Indigenous people also report having to ask permission before going hunting and being banned from working for other people.

Often the debt is entirely manufactured. For example, when indigenous people go hunting for the Bantu they are given a rifle and bullets, but everything they catch goes to the Bantu who keep all the profit. If more bullets have been fired than animals caught, the Bantu charges them 1,000 CFA (US$2.40) per bullet claiming that they are keeping animals for themselves. Bantu also reportedly give indigenous children small amounts of food then take all the fish their parents had caught during the day in exchange for the ‘debt’.

Recommendations:

We welcome the comprehensive report of the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, Ms. Gulnara Shahinian, on bonded labour. Given the millions of people affected by the practice in every part of the world and the gravity of the human rights violations associated with debt bondage, we share the Rapporteur’s concern that it receives too little attention by States. We support her call for comprehensive action to eliminate debt bondage.

In particular we call on the Human Rights Council to:

Urge all States to:

• Sign, ratify, enforce and monitor the 1926 Slavery Convention and the 1956 Supplementary Convention;
• Criminalise all forms of slavery, including debt bondage, through national legislation and ensure the prosecution of the perpetrators with sentences commensurate with the crime;
• Establish effective and comprehensive national action plans for the eradication of all forms of slavery. These should include, inter alia, measures to identify, release, rehabilitate and reintegrate those subject to slavery. National action plans must contain effective measures to combat the root causes of slavery, including poverty and discrimination;
• Acknowledge and address manifestations of debt bondage that do not take place in the context of trafficking in persons and develop specific legislation to address debt bondage, ensuring that similar penalties apply to conditions of debt bondage as those applied to trafficking in persons.

Urge IGOs and NGOs to:

• Mainstream measures to address slavery across agencies and programmes, recognizing that contemporary forms of slavery occur in all regions at all levels of society;
• Take specific prevention and protection measures to combat debt bondage, as part of their long term development strategy, such as the Millennium Development Goals. Interventions and programmes must address societal power structures and patterns of discrimination to ensure that they reach out to people vulnerable to slavery, including debt bondage.

Urge national and international businesses to:

• Ensure that the UDHR and international labour standards, including the prohibition of forced labour, are implemented along their entire supply chains.