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What is Bonded Labour?

An estimated 15.5 million people in South Asia and around the world are exploited by traffickers through a common form of labour trafficking called bonded labour. Traffickers will target victims in underserved communities without access to education and economic resources who can be manipulated into accepting loans to meet urgent needs.

Perpetrators will then manipulate debts by artificially inflating them, forcing victims into working to pay off the debt indefinitely. This endless cycle of violence can trap children, women and men in modern slavery for generations. That’s how a $16 loan cost Kuppan* the next 30 years of his life.

How does bonded labour happen?

In many rural villages, it’s a common cultural practice for families to accept small loans from wealthier business owners in the area to help pay for urgent needs. People who grow up in impoverished communities don’t have access to things like banks and rarely have savings, making loans the only option for those who need cash fast. But traffickers have learned to distort this cultural practice to enslave families like Kuppan’s into debt bondage.


The farmer who offered 15-year-old Kuppan a meager loan of 1,000 rupees had no intention of helping his family. It was a trick from the beginning, designed to trap Kuppan in an endless cycle of false debt that would grow faster than it was possible for him to pay off.

To pay back the debt, people like Kuppan would be forced to work in the blistering heat with very few breaks for a minimum of 12 to 16 hours a day, seven days a week. In exchange, they would typically earn no more than 300 rupees a week, or $4.93 CAD. Meanwhile, perpetrators would subtract the cost of food, water, shelter and materials from the labourers' pay, sometimes even adding to the amount owed.

If Kuppan had received at least the minimum wage required by local law, it would have taken him less than a week to repay his loan. Instead, he spent the next three decades of his life in bondage.

Where is bonded labour most common?

Experts estimate that anywhere from 8 to 18 million people in India alone are trapped in different circumstances of bonded labour.

Though bonded labour is illegal almost everywhere in the world, this hasn’t prevented people like Kuppan from being targeted by perpetrators looking to profit off the exploitation of vulnerable people. And vulnerable populations are growing.

A rapidly increasing population and unstable climate are just two of the factors pushing families deeper into poverty. Without proper rainfall, entire villages can no longer depend on local agriculture to keep them fed. Because of this, more people must migrate to find work, which increases their risk of being trafficked, deceived and abused.

What’s the difference between bonded labour and forced labour?

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As Kuppan began to realize that escape was not an option, he tried to make the most of his situation and live a normal life. He met a woman named Malliga*, married her and had four children. Those children were born into a life of modern slavery, and eventually forced to work alongside their parents for hours a day in the sun and rain. Kuppan watched his kids grow up and have children of their own – who were also born into bondage. Now three generations of Kuppan’s family were trapped in bonded labour. And it all started from a $16 loan.

It might be hard to imagine why someone in this situation can’t just run away or refuse to work. But perpetrators of bonded labour use a variety of tactics to maintain their power over labourers. For example, loans are often given after signing a contract. The contracts aren’t legal, but victims often don’t have a thorough understanding of the law or their own rights. So, when traffickers want to intimidate or coerce labourers into working harder or accepting low wages, they’ll sometimes threaten fake legal action.

Violence is another tactic used to maintain control of labourers. Perpetrators will physically, sexually and verbally abuse labourers regularly to slowly dehumanize them and remind them of “their place.” After a while, this takes a psychological toll on victims, who often burst into tears when they explain how ashamed they would feel to even lift their heads up to respond.

After three decades of abuse, Kuppan had given up any hope of his family finding freedom.

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Meanwhile, International Justice Mission had been working in partnership with the local government to reduce the prevalence of bonded labour throughout the region. As more people were rescued, survivors began to take the lead. Several of them joined together to form the Released Bonded Labourers’ Association (RBLA), with the goal of using their lived experience to help assist police investigations and speak into aftercare programs designed to help survivors heal.

When the RBLA heard that Kuppan, his family and others were enslaved at a nearby farm, they brought the case to government authorities, who then coordinated a rescue operation. On that day, Kuppan and his family reclaimed the freedom they thought they had lost forever. A total of 17 victims, including six children, were released from bonded labour. They received government certificates legally releasing them from any false debts attached to their names and were even provided with additional funds to help them recover from their trauma and rebuild a life in freedom.

Kuppan and his family were supported by the RBLA for weeks after the rescue. And the government helped them open bank accounts, secure land to build homes and find relatives to stay with while they got back on their feet.

Just one night spent in freedom was enough to help Malliga find hope again. The morning after the rescue, she told IJM workers “This is the most peaceful sleep I’ve ever had. I don’t have to tie my hands and answer anyone anymore. I am free. I never thought this day would come.”

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Today, the prevalence of bonded labour has plummeted in regions where IJM has worked. It used to be the norm for vulnerable people like Kuppan to be targeted by traffickers for bonded labour. But the tide has shifted. As IJM continues to partner with local authorities to eradicate this crime, there is a future firmly within reach where people like Kuppan do not have to live in fear of violent traffickers. Instead, they can thrive in safety and freedom.


*To protect IJM survivors, we have used pseudonyms and included photos that do not depict actual victims where appropriate. Consent gathered for all images.

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