US embassy cable - 05CHENNAI609

SLOW PROGRESS ON BONDED LABOR IN TAMIL NADU

Identifier: 05CHENNAI609
Wikileaks: View 05CHENNAI609 at Wikileaks.org
Origin: Consulate Chennai
Created: 2005-04-05 06:43:00
Classification: UNCLASSIFIED//FOR OFFICIAL USE ONLY
Tags: ELAB PHUM ECON KCRM PGOV SOCI IN Human Rights Labor
Redacted: This cable was not redacted by Wikileaks.
This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 02 CHENNAI 000609 
 
SIPDIS 
 
SENSITIVE BUT UNCLASSIFIED 
 
INL/AAE FOR WILLIAM WRIGHT 
G/TIP FOR MARK TAYLOR AND SALLY NEUMANN 
SA FOR JENELLE KRISHNAMOORTHY 
 
E.O. 12958: N/A 
TAGS: ELAB, PHUM, ECON, KCRM, PGOV, SOCI, IN, Human Rights, Labor 
SUBJECT: SLOW PROGRESS ON BONDED LABOR IN TAMIL NADU 
 
REF: 00 CHENNAI 01411 
 
1. (U) SUMMARY:  Although the government of Tamil Nadu 
acknowledges the problem of bonded labor and has done more 
to address the issue than other Indian states, progress on 
its elimination in the state has been slow.  Enforcement of 
laws against the practice has been inconsistent due to 
competing priorities and a view that the issue is more a 
social than a criminal matter.  END SUMMARY 
 
-------------------------- 
BACKGROUND ON BONDED LABOR 
-------------------------- 
 
2. (U) Estimates of bonded laborers in Tamil Nadu range from 
25,000 to one million.  The 25,000 figure is an estimate 
from the Tamil Nadu Special Officer for Release and 
Rehabilitation of Bonded Labor and the one million figure is 
from a two-member commission, appointed by the Supreme Court 
in 1995 to study the issue.  The NGO Human Rights Watch 
recently seconded the one million figure.  The Bonded Labor 
System (Abolition) Act of 1976, a national law, defines 
bonded labor as a system "under which the debtor or his 
descendents or dependents have to work for the creditor 
without reasonable wages or with no wages at all in order to 
extinguish the debt."  The Act makes the practice illegal 
and establishes punishment for employers of bonded labor of 
up to three years in jail and a fine of 2,000 Rupees 
(roughly 44 USD).  Enforcement of the law, however, has been 
weak. 
 
--------------------------------------------- ------------- 
PROTESTS AND A PUBLIC HEARING ON RICE MILL BONDED LABORERS 
--------------------------------------------- ------------- 
 
3. (U) With the help of the labor union Sarpam, hundreds of 
rice mill workers in the Red Hills area of north Chennai 
staged a demonstration in September 2004 to protest 
unhygienic working conditions and limited access to basic 
amenities in the workplace.  The laborers complained that 
they earned 15 rupees a day (about 34 cents) for working a 
19-hour day processing rice.  This compares with 85 rupees 
(approximately 1.88 USD) for an eight-hour day as required 
by minimum wage provisions.  One of the laborers told 
reporters, "If one demanded a wage increase, he would be 
abused if not assaulted." 
 
4. (U) At the request of the NGO, "Women's Struggle 
Committee," the former Chairperson of the National 
Commission for Women (NCW), Poornima Advani, and the former 
Chairperson of the Tamil Nadu State Commission for Women 
(TNSCW), Vasanthi Devi, held a public hearing on bonded 
labor in the rice mills in October 2004 at Red Hills in the 
Thiruvallur district of Tamil Nadu.  About 500 bonded 
laborers appeared at the hearing and nine women, two men and 
nine children victims provided testimony.  Eight other 
victims filed written affidavits.  They told the panel that 
about 10,000 bonded laborers in the rice mills in Red Hills 
lacked basic needs such as drinking water, lights and 
toilets. 
 
----------------------------- 
SOME LIMITED PROGRESS FOLLOWS 
----------------------------- 
 
5. (U) The outcome of the protests and subsequent public 
hearing was a reaffirmation by government officials that 
appropriate bonded labor and minimum wage laws exist and 
that enforcement is the responsibility of the district 
collectors.  In a follow-up conversation after the hearings, 
the Tiruvallur Revenue Divisional Officer told Pol FSN that 
his district has prosecuted 15 rice mill owners and 
registered 248 rice mills under the Factory Act that ensures 
a minimum wage and other facility minimum standards. 
Authorities fined each of the employers at these rice mills 
2,000 rupees (about 44 USD) and each served one day in jail. 
The Women's Struggle Committee told Post recently that the 
rice mills registered under the Factory Act were now paying 
the required minimum wage, but paying it for 12 hours of 
work rather than the lawful eight hours. 
 
--------------------------------------------- -------- 
NGOS ARE ACTIVE PARTICIPANTS IN FIGHTING BONDED LABOR 
--------------------------------------------- -------- 
 
6.  (U) Local NGOs have been active in combating bonded 
labor.  International Justice Mission (IJM) seeks to address 
the problem by taking legal action on behalf of bonded 
laborers and against employers.  Working with district 
collectors, they have organized a series of "raids" on rice 
mills.  Since the demonstration in 2004, IJM has 
successfully released 35 bonded labor families from the rice 
mills.  Another NGO, the Women's Struggle Committee, seeks 
to establish alternative work and housing arrangements for 
former bonded laborers to prevent a return to a life of 
bonded labor following release.  Geetha Ramakrishna, advisor 
to the Women's Struggle Committee, told Post, "It's a 
vicious circle.  The lack of regulatory mechanisms and 
alternate jobs often compel workers to go back to bondage." 
The INDUS Project, a cooperative project effort of the U.S. 
Department of Labor, the International Labor Organization 
and the Government of India seeks to combat child labor in 
Tamil Nadu and other Indian states.  Many of the children 
assisted by the project are bonded laborers. 
 
-------------------------------------- 
INEFFECTIVE ENFORCEMENT SLOWS PROGRESS 
-------------------------------------- 
 
7. (U) Although the law provides for penalties for employers 
of bonded labor, employers are rarely prosecuted.  District 
collectors who are responsible for enforcement often have 
more fundamental law and order concerns that they consider 
to be higher priorities.  Government, law enforcement and 
even public attitudes toward bonded labor are also an issue. 
John Richmond, Director of IJM, told post that the practice 
of bonded labor is "not culturally unacceptable" in south 
India.  As an example, in the case of the rice mills in 
Tiruvallur, district administration played the role of a 
mediator between the owners and the laborers rather than 
treating the employment of bonded labor as a criminal 
offense as required by the law.  In general, Tamil Nadu's 
bonded labor program is focused on release and 
rehabilitation of bonded labor rather than prosecution of 
employers.  The penalty of 2,000 rupees and one day in jail 
that was assessed on the Red Hills rice mills owners 
suggests a reluctance take strong action against the 
employers of bonded labor who are often important local 
figures and well connected politically. 
 
8. (SBU) COMMENT: Tamil Nadu was a pioneer state in seeking 
to abolish bonded labor.  The state conducted the first-ever 
systematic survey of bonded labor and under the leadership 
of an aggressive Special Commissioner for Bonded Labor, 
P.W.C. Davidar, made good initial progress before Davidar's 
departure from the position.  But more recently, lax 
enforcement of laws prohibiting the practice has resulted in 
only slow additional progress.  Social activists claim that 
the state government and district administration become 
involved only when the issue becomes politicized as it did 
after the protests and subsequent hearing in the Red Hills 
area outside Chennai.  NGOs are playing a useful role in 
addressing the problem but real and permanent progress in 
eliminating the practice of bonded labor will come only when 
the attitude and actions of district collectors change.  END 
COMMENT. 
 
HAYNES 

Latest source of this page is cablebrowser-2, released 2011-10-04