Bonded labour is widespread in Nepal despite national legislation prohibiting the practice. Predominant in agriculture, bonded labour is also found in domestic work and brick kilns. It is also believed to exist in sectors such as embroidery workshops, tea shops and small restaurants.
Bonded labour in agriculture
The haliya or “tiller” system is an agricultural bonded labour practice in the Western hills of Nepal. According to the ILO, it affects an estimated 20,000 people in far western Nepal(1).
Haliya bonded labourers are indebted to their landlords and receive little or no pay in return for their agricultural work and domestic work for their landlord. Generally, haliya bonded labourers are from low caste or minority ethnic groups. The National Dalit Welfare Organisation estimates that one fifth of haliya bonded labourers are dalits.
The kamaiya system under which thousands of agricultural labourers were bonded was abolished by law in 2002 and thousands of kamaiya bonded labourers were released. Under this system, which mainly affected Tharu indigenous people of Western Nepal, an agricultural labourer became bonded by a loan (saunki ) given to them by their landlord at the beginning of their working relationship. Usurious interest rates and low income levels made certain that a worker would almost never be able to escape this bond(2).
Despite its prohibition in law, there may be some traces of the kamaiya system remaining, particularly in interior parts of the country where Government action to identify, release and rehabilitate kamaiya bonded labourers has not reached those affected.
Furthermore, since the kamaiya system was abolished in 2002, a system called Zirayat is re-emerging, which is a practice of share-cropping under which produce is divided between landlords and tenants, and tenants are required to till additional land for the landlords without any wages (3).
Nepal has ratified a number of international conventions against forced, labour, debt bondage and slavery. The current interim Constitution of Nepal prohibits slavery, serfdom or forced labour in any form. In 2000, the Government declared that the system of kamaiya was illegal and all kamaiya bonded labourers were to be liberated, and in 2002 the Kamaiya Labour (Prohibition) Act was introduced, which prohibited bonded labour among kamaiyas, declared all loans taken as null and void, and declared all persons working as kamaiya labourers free(4).
Though intended primarily for the kamaiya bonded labourers, by prohibiting labour or services provided by a person to his creditor without any wages or at low wages to repay loans, the 2002 Act has the potential to include in its scope other forms of bonded labour.
In September 2008, the Government announced that it had abolished the haliya system and cancelled the debts of haliya bonded labourers.
Adverse effects of prohibition – the need for rehabilitation schemes
In 2000 and in 2002, when the Government of Nepal announced the Bonded Labour (Prohibition) Act and The Kamaiya Labour (Prohibition) Act respectively, thousands of bonded labourers were evicted from their homes and their landlords deprived them of access to land and work, leaving them to starve. The absence of any government support meant that many were forced to live in the fields with no means of livelihood. Refused work by their landlords they became internally displaced and homeless(5).
Weaknesses in the rehabilitation process has left former kamaiya bonded labourers vulnerable to entering into new forms of exploitative working practices including bonded labour.