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What You Need to Know about Bonded Labor

The last 5-10 years have brought an incredible rise in awareness about the issue of human trafficking, and that is definitely something to praise God for. The vast majority of this attention has been directed, in particular, to the sub-category of sex trafficking, particularly in underage girls. This attention is well-deserved, and the increased funding and resources has helped free thousands of women.

However, sex trafficking is only one aspect of the multibillion dollar industry of human trafficking. Of the 29.8 million people that the United Nations estimates are in slavery today, almost 2/3rds of them are trapped in forced or bonded labor slavery.

Bonded labor slavery is when a person is coerced, often through violence or threats of violence, to work with little or no pay, with no avenue for recourse or way of leaving the “employer.” These enslavements can last decades and be past on to children and grandchildren.

The process often works like this: poor villagers need a loan for a very small amount of money, say 20 dollars, to bury a family member, or repair a home. Traffickers eagerly offer to loan them the money on the pretense that they will take them somewhere they can work to pay off the debt. The villagers are often taken hundreds of miles from their homes, where they have no family, no official documents, and may not even speak the language. The “employers” then keep unfair, fraudulent, or just non-existent records of the debts and interest owed, trapping the trafficked persons into generations of slavery.

The work is often brutal, with victims working 12+ hours daily in horrible conditions at places like brick factories and rice paddies. Children are put to work at a young age and do not attend school. Victims are often beaten and abused, creating an atmosphere of fear that further prevents all except the exceptionally brave from seeking help and trying to escape. Imagine carrying a 60 pound bucket across a brickyard, only to empty it, walk back, refill it, and repeat the process, for 12 hours, for no pay. Now imagine that its all you’ve ever done. It’s how you’ve spent every day of your entire life, and that its all you ever will do.

This degradation of human life is very real and is happening every day, for millions of people, all over the world. It even happens here in the US, often with illegal immigrants, working in inhumane conditions, and unwilling to report it over fear of being imprisoned or deported.

International Justice Mission’s goal in this large-scale abuse is to rescue those held in slavery, hold perpetrators accountable to the full extent of the law, provide the training necessary for former slaves to have fulfilling futures, and effect systemic change to stop the problem altogether. When IJM is given a tip about a factory or quarry or mill possibly holding people in bonded labor, they will gather evidence to build a case, and then bring the evidence to the police, which will then accompany IJM to the business and conduct a raid, freeing those being held. While social workers secure aftercare and proper government documentation for the freed people, IJM attorneys pursue charges against the slaveholders in court, an often long and arduous process but which has seen improvement over IJM’s last decade of work in bonded labor in South Asia. By pushing case after case through the justice system pipeline, IJM sees where the stoppages and leaks are (i.e. the police, or the judges, or court record keeping) and with that experience, is better able to work with the local justice system to help it work more effectively by addressing specific issues. One of IJM’s most successful efforts in aiding the local justice systems in South Asia fight bonded labor has been its training of hundreds of local officials in how to better recognize and address the issue in their own jurisdictions. Also remarkable has been the success of IJM’s partnership with Google on a project to replicate IJM’s results by training and supporting a number of local partner organizations in South Asia, that IJM’s success could be taken to scale.

IJM and its partners know very well, that even with rescuing thousands every year, we are barely making a dent in almost 30 million held in slavery. The hope is that, as momentum continues to build and conviction numbers rise, the scales which currently make the benefits of keeping people in bonded labor outweigh the risks of getting caught, finally tip. At some point, the money saved simply wont be worth the potential cost. That’s why perpetrator accountability and structural adjustment is so important, it may very well be the path to ending bonded labor.

My year in South Asia with IJM will be focused on communicating about the issue of bonded labor, and telling the stories of abuse, but also rescue and redemption, of the individuals affected. I feel so privileged to be able to contribute to the work of telling these forgotten people’s stories, and I would love your help, if you want to check out the “What You Can Do” tab.

While I am halfway across the world, however, there is more that you can learn and share from here in the states. A complicating factor to this mission of ending forced labor slavery is that, unlike CSEC (commercial sexual exploitation of children) or organ trafficking, which the vast majority of people in the world are not contributing to, many mainstream items are known to use forced labor in their supply chain. Unfortunately, when we buy these products, we become part of the problem. For example KYE, which makes parts for Microsoft, Nokia, and others is known to keep its workers in abusive conditions. Victoria’s Secret, when called out because their “fair trade cotton panties” used child labor, simply removed “fair trade” from the label. While there is, unfortunately, no comprehensive list of brands and suppliers that use forced/bonded labor, there are resources such as which can approximate “how many slaves work for you” based on your lifestyle, that provide more information about the demand side of the issue.

I hope God stirs an interest in your heart for these victims and the work that IJM and many other great organizations are doing to help create justice. I would love to hear from you if you have any questions or want to know more!