Construction, like many other industries in South Asia, promotes exploitation by virtue of apathy, custom, corruption, and greed. There is also a particular impunity built into the system of construction labor contracting that is especially effective at promoting trafficking and bondage.
After winning a bid for a project, major construction companies often subcontract the labor recruitment and management to jamadars. These are labor recruiters who offer advances to peasants across India in exchange for working on the project. Entire families can be recruited with the promise of good wages and conditions, but on arrival, the laborers can be severely exploited.
… “We are treated like cockroaches,” a laborer named Rashmi told me, “It is not just the jamadars—the government has betrayed the people. We are like dogs in the street scrounging for food and shelter. They promise us wages, but we have been here five months with no wages and barely enough food to eat. I feel no human dignity.”
Two sectors that feed directly into the construction sector – stones and bricks – are just as exploitative as construction. Millions of the most destitute peasants in South Asia are recruited each year into back-breaking work bashing stones or baking bricks to be used in construction projects.
With bricks, peasants work 14 or more hours a day in highly dangerous conditions baking bricks in a kiln that seethes at 1000+ degrees Celsius. The peasants often migrate to the kilns each year, perpetually seeking to pay off loans that almost always seem to grow.
When a bonded laborer named Gurahu attempted to flee from his insurmountable debts, the brick owner’s men tracked him down, punished him with electric shocks, and sold his daughter to a trafficker as punishment.
“I could not believe God had done this,” Gurahu told me. “I wanted to take my life. You cannot imagine how much pain I felt. I never saw my daughter again.”
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Siddharth Kara is the author of Bonded Labor: Tackling the System of Slavery in South Asia.