On February 9, several South Asia states took remarkable steps to combat modern slavery, as they commemorated the anniversary of the country’s original anti-bonded labour law.
With formal and informal celebrations of Bonded Labour System Abolition Day, government leaders are publicly affirming their commitment to the cause of justice. Their words signal a promising sea change from the way some authorities viewed bonded labour in the past—and a great promise for how it can be ended in the future.
An Annual Commitment
Bonded labour is a prevalent crime in parts of South Asia, wherein business owners use debts, threats and violence to trap vulnerable people and force them to work. India passed its Bonded Labor System Abolition (BLSA) Act on February 9, 1976, which now forms the basis for much of the country’s anti-slavery response.
Yet, for years, some government officials pointed to the law’s passing as a mission accomplished—therefore denying the prevalence of bonded labour even as families suffered.
In recent decades, the government has steadily improved its response in partnership with law enforcement, NGOs and survivors themselves. Many leaders now see the BLSA as a commitment to renew every year.
With the encouragement of IJM and others, the state of Tamil Nadu established a formal Bonded Labor System Abolition Day every February 9, and Karnataka has set up an informal observance of the same.
This week, Tamil Nadu’s Deputy Chief Minister Thiru O. Panneerselvam shared in a translated Tweet, “I am proud to announce that the Mother’s Government of Tamil Nadu will be the first state in India to celebrate the Abolition of Slavery Day (Feb-9) tomorrow, which will break the bondage of slavery and bring prosperity to those who suffer as slaves.”
He also added, “We are committed to abolishing slavery by saying ‘no one is a slave to anyone’ and turning it into a state without slavery!”
This Year’s Commemoration
IJM and our partners have held informal events on the BLSA anniversary for the last several years to honour the movement and raise ongoing needs. We were honoured to join state government agencies this year to commemorate the day in numerous ways.
In Tamil Nadu, IJM and our partners joined officials in two formal events. First, in the morning, the state’s Labor Department hosted a celebration where officials took a unified pledge against bonded labour. They also launched an awareness film and a street theatre campaign, organized by a network of survivors called the Released Bonded Laborers Association. This street theatre campaign will travel across 11 districts to educate vulnerable communities about bonded labour and the government’s response. The Commissioner of Labor also sent a directive to the state’s 38 districts to honour February 9 with a similar program of pledges, awareness events, and other actions.
In the evening, IJM and the Greater Chennai Police screened a new short film on child bonded labour and honoured 23 “justice champions” from the media, police, government and judiciary who had made exceptional contributions toward ending bonded labour.
In Karnataka, IJM worked with the government on a diverse campaign to mark the anniversary. We supported the Rural Development and Panchayat Raj (RDPR) department in releasing a short documentary about bonded labour on local television and running a multi-day campaign in print and social media raising awareness of the crime. A group of bonded labour survivors also met with top officials to explain their experience, and their photo later ran as an anti-bonded labour ad in major newspapers.
Meanwhile, IJM also supported the government in setting up 24 rehabilitation “camps” across Karnataka state where survivors of bonded labour could meet their local officials and get connected to government benefit programs. These programs will help in their ongoing rehabilitation and will create safer communities where bonded labour cannot thrive.
On a national level, IJM’s team in Delhi also shared an infographic video on how India’s government has advanced the fight against bonded labour since 1976. Their informative video has already engaged key leaders and gotten support from the National Commission for Women.
Altogether, these diverse and impactful public engagements are showing the Indian government increasing commitment to the reduction of bonded labour and the wellbeing of survivors. This proves a profound change from the past and gives great hope for a more just future.