• Caste exists where
  • Terminology
  • Caste and untouchability
  • Caste and human rights
  • Caste, race and descent
  • Key issues
    • Dalit women
    • Forced prostitution
    • Bonded labour
      • Caste-based slavery
      • India
      • Pakistan
      • Nepal
      • Sri Lanka
      • Mauritania
    • Manual scavenging
    • Education
    • Political participation
    • Non-implementation
  • Case stories
  • FAQ

Forced, bonded labour and caste

Umerkot, Sindh, Pakistan, April 2008. 40 families of the Oad caste in Pakistan’s Sindh province work at this brick factory. Among them is Phoolan, her three children and husband. Whether they borrowed money from the owners, also of the Oad caste, is not clear, but very likely. They get two euros per 1000 bricks which is the amount they can produce in one day.

Despite being prohibited in many countries, slavery is widespread in South Asia. Forced and bonded labour, resulting in a loss of control over labour conditions and terms of work, is often interlinked with the caste system and related types of customary feudal agricultural relationships.

Dalit bonded labourers
Those who are employed as bonded labourers in South Asia are predominantly Dalits, also known as ‘untouchables’. According to an Anti Slavery International report, the vast majority of bonded labourers (around 90%) are predominantly from scheduled castes and minority groups. Weak economic positions and lack of access to resources increase Dalits' dependence on wage labour. Extreme poverty forces Dalits to take up loans and they hold no other assets to lever their debt other than their labour. In addition to poverty, practices of social exclusion of Dalits push them into bondage.

When Dalits try to exercise their rights or resist abuse and exploitation, they are faced with extremely hostile and sometimes brutal resistance by the higher caste villagers that uphold the hierarchy. Consequently, when Dalits resist their oppression, they risk complete boycott, cutting them off from land use, access to markets and employment.  Other retaliations against Dalit assertion include killings, gang rapes, looting and arson.

> Click here to learn more about bonded labour, caste based slavery and forced labour 

Forced and bonded labour in numbers
There is no accurate number on the global scale of forced and bonded labour. According to the ILO, the global number of forced labourers was 21 million persons in 2012. Out of this number, the Asia and Pacific Region accounted for approximately 11,7 million persons. There are however no comprehensive studies on the number of bonded labourers that have a scheduled caste background.

International Legislation
Forced and bonded labour are contemporary forms of slavery, and they are prohibited under international law, including the UN Slavery Conventions of 1926 and 1956, and ILO Conventions.

Bonded labour is defined in the 1956 UN Supplementary Convention on Slavery as “the status or condition arising from a pledge by a debtor of his personal services or 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 two fundamental ILO conventions are the Forced Labour Convention (no. 29) and the Abolition of Forced Labour Convention (No. 105). Both of these, as well as the UN Convention on Slavery,  have been ratified by India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan and the countries are all obliged to report to the ILO every two years. The ILO’s Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, 1999 (No. 182) and Trafficking Protocol of 2000 also specifically include forced labour and debt bondage.

> Read more about the ILO and caste discrimination

Country information on forced and bonded labour

Caste-based forms of bonded labour
Dalits are particularly vulnerable to bonded labour, because of their socio-economic status, but bonded labour is also conjoined with caste in the form of caste-based occupations. Two well-known forms of caste-based and bonded occupations in India are manual scavenging and the systems of forced prostitution.

> Click here to read more about manual scavenging
> Click here to read more about forced prostitution

Corporate Social Responsibility

Read more about what private companies can do to prevent and eliminate discrimination against Dalits in the employment sector

> Caste discrimination in business operations


IDSN has created an extensive database on caste-based discrimination.

Click here for all documents on labour >>

Other Resources

IDSN BRIEFING PAPER: Dalits, forced and bonded labour (2012) >>

Modern Slavery in India - Cases of Bonded Labour (Publication by Franciscans International, 2012)

IDSN submission to the UN Special Rapporteur on slavery (2012): Forced marriage and forced prostitution of Dalit women

“Maid in India - Young Dalit Women Continue to Suffer Exploitative Conditions in India’s Garment Industry” (April 2012)

ICN/ SOMO report ‘Captured by Cotton’  Dalit girls working under slave like conditions in India’s garment industry (May 2011)

ICN/SOMO report 'Still captured by cotton' a follow-up report on improvements and continued challenges in the Indian garment industry (March 2012)

"Bonded Labor: Tackling the System of Slavery in South Asia" by Siddarth Kara, Harward University (2012). The book is available at Amazon and other book retailers.

Bonded Labour in India: Its incidence and Pattern by Ravi S. Srivastava, published by the International Labour Office, Geneva, June 2005.

Poverty, Discrimination and Slavery: The reality of bonded labour in India, Nepal and Pakistan Anti-Slavery International, 2008.

India's Childhood in the "Pits" by Dhaatri Resource Centre for Women and Children - Samata, HAQ: Centre for Child Rights, March 2010

The Enslavement of Dalit and Indigenous Communities in India, Nepal and Pakistan Through Debt Bondage, Anti-Slavery International, 2001.

A Global Alliance against Forced Labour Global Report under the Follow-up to the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, 2005 International Labour Conference published by the ILO.

The Small Hands of Slavery: Bonded Child Labor In India, Human Rights Watch Children's Rights Project,  Human Rights Watch/Asia. Published by Human Rights Watch 1996.

Videos - Caste Discrimination and Bonded Labour

Below is a video dealing with caste discrimination and bonded labour. Visit IDSN's YouTube Channel for more videos on other themes/countries.