July 2012


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Bonded Child Laborers Still Not Free among the Freed Kamaiya

Shree Ram Chaudhari


The Kamaiya system of bonded labor in western Nepal was abolished by the Nepalese government on July 17, 2000. More than 150,000 Kamaiyas were freed from their servitude and began living in camps in temporary huts.

Today these camps are still being used and continue to lack basic infrastructure and do not provide adequate essential living standards. The camps, for instance, do not have drinking water provisions nor health and education facilities, and the land distributed to the Kamaiyas is unproductive. Similarly, there are no roads, electricity facilities are only available to a limited number of camps, degrading environmental conditions exist and no employment opportunities are available as the camps are situated on the outskirts of the main village development committee (VDC) settlements.

The freed Kamaiyas have frequently organized advocacy campaigns at the local and national levels jointly with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and other like-minded institutions and organizations of civil society, including squatters, to expose the Kamaiyas’ living conditions. As a result of these efforts, most of the freed Kamaiyas who received unproductive land and have been living in extremely harsh conditions have been moved by the government to relatively better places. In this process, the Society for Participatory Cultural Education (SPACE) has been carrying out various community development activities in Bardiya District since October 2009 with financial assistance from Arbeiterwohlfarht International (AWO), or Workers Welfare Institution, in Germany to address the issues of the freed Kamaiyas. However, there are still an assortment of problems rooted inside the Kamiyas’ settlements with this article focusing its attention specifically on Kamiya bonded child laborers.

Generally, the Kamaiya system is known as the bonded labor farm system of Nepal. However, not all Kamaiyas are necessarily bonded. Differentiated control over resources, general working conditions and patron-client networks within the kamaiya system have resulted in a variety of social mechanisms that entail elements of bondage. Similarly, all children working as Kamaiya child laborers may not be directly bonded, but they work in circumstances and under conditions that reflect the precarious situation of their families and the range of different elements that constitute bonded labor relations. Types of employment relations, and information on whether or not working children are linked with household transactions or contracts, can provide clues to gauge the extent of the problem of bonded child labor.

Children begin to work for the same employer as the other adults in the household, either by choice or by compulsion. In rural areas of Nepal, especially in the mid- and far western regions, children are required to work for the same employer under the kamaiya farm labor system, and the employment of children in the kamaiya system is linked with the parents’ annual wage. As debt bondage is a feature of the kamaiya system, many adult laborers are not free to change employers, and a child working as an appendage to such labor is also not free to choose his or her employer.

Pushed by deprivation and hardships in the rural areas and attracted by urban glitter and hope for advancement, many children migrate to urban centers and end up working in captivity. The number of street children, rag pickers and children rescued from carpet or other manufacturing industries reveal that the numbers of such children are in the thousands. Although the slavery-like practices of the kamaiya system have been banned, a variety of exploitative farm labor arrangements persist. Child bondage can be detected right from the point of entry into child labor.


Bondage among Kamaiya children working for an employer thus ensues from the debt incurred by the parents and also through the linkage with exploitative employment practices affecting the parents. Poor Kamaiya households either pledge children as collateral for loans or children are sent to work in landowners’ houses to secure kamaiya contracts or to secure the rights to sharecrop. Thus, Kamaiya children face bondage as they enter the child labor market. The phenomenon of linking land-leasing and child labor is on the increase, especially since the liberation of Kamaiyas in July 2000. The burden of the link between leasing land and child labor seems to be high among Kamaiya girls.

The first of the problems that the child laborers reported is that their parents have taken a loan from their employer. Generally, children cannot be withdrawn from work until the loans are fully repaid, and the child works in debt bondage to pay off parental debts.

The second type of bondage is the result of one or both of the parents seeking employment from landowners. The children work along with their parents for the same employer.

Thirdly, bondage also ensues with Kamaiya households leasing land from landowners. To continue the leasing contracts, landowners require the Kamaiya family to supply child labor.

Key aspects of debt bondage feature in many Kamaiya child labor relationships. The problem of bondage, however, is not limited to debt but also extends to family labor employment and land contracts. Children can be considered to be bonded where access to land for Kamaiya households is bound to the supply of child laborers. Furthermore, the working conditions of many Kamaiya children contain elements of the worst forms of child labor—specifically, work without pay, excessive working hours, work at night and employment at an early age. In addition to aspects of bondage, the prevalence of these elements categorizes the work of virtually all wage child laborers of Kamaiya households among the worst forms of child labor.

Dynamics of Kamiya Child Laborers

Unlike domestic and other child labor, the employment of Kamaiya children is generally linked to their parents’ labor relationships. Within the kamaiya system, a whole family of laborers may be exclusively supplied to a specific landowner—the employer—with children also engaged in the work. However, Nepal’s new legislation has created new issues that link access to land and labor supply. Discussions with adult and child laborers suggest that these labor issues have acquired a new twist since national legislation banned the kamaiya system. As Kamaiyas convert to being “sharecroppers,” the supply of children for work becomes one of the conditions to safeguard land contracts.

Take the following sequence of events, for example. A landowner has five hectares of land and four adult Kamaiya laborers bonded to his land. After legislation makes it illegal for him to use bonded laborers, he offers each Kamaiya one hectare (and keeps one for himself). The ex-bonded Kamaiya laborer becomes a sharecropper. There are, however, strings attached. Firstly, the Kamaiyas earn no wage from the landowner. Secondly, the landowner requests that each Kamaiya send a child to work as a domestic servant. Of the four children provided, one child stays in his house while the others are sent to work in Kathmandu. The linkages between adult and child labor supply are being transformed into linkages between land and child labor supply.

Way to Address the Issues

Poverty is the key reason why parents send their children to work. Children are also pledged as collateral to have access to credit. In poor households, working children contribute to income directly by supplementing household income and indirectly by saving the consumption expenditure.

Parents, employers and policymakers need to be included in awareness-related activities. Parents need to be made aware of the human capital loss associated with child labor. Employers need to be made aware of the legal and societal norms against child labor practices . Policymakers need to be sensitized to the urgency of combating child labor. Child-focused strategies of development interventions need to be promoted. Government and NGOs should promote and undertake activities that contribute to the gradual elimination of child labor as quickly as possible.

School attendance and work are competing activities for poor children. A lack of resources compels many parents to keep their children out of school. Irrelevant curricula and high costs involved in educating children work as further disincentives. Compulsory and free primary education has the potential to help children out of exploitative work.

Nepal has not ratified ILO Conventions No. 29 and No. 105 on forced labor. This inaction can be taken as an indication of some government indifference to such issues as bondage and slave-like practices. The government should be encouraged to change its stance. In addition, the government should be assisted in its preparation to ratify the new ILO Convention No. 182 on child labor.

* Shree Ram Chaudhari is the program manager of the Society for Participatory Cultural Education (SPACE) in Bardiya District of Nepal. He attended the first School of Peace (SOP) that Interfaith Cooperation Forum (ICF) held in Bangalore, India, in 2006.