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
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
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
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.