Under the bonded labour system a debtor is forced to enter into an agreement with the creditor to work for him without reasonable wages or no wages for an indefinite period. Various reasons contribute to bonded labour, such as debt, customary or social obligation, economic obligation of forefathers etc. There is a creditor-debtor relationship between the employer and the employee in the bonded labour system, which often pass over to other members of the family. The bonded labour relationships cannot be held as economic contracts, though they originate from the economic necessity of the employee. The employee is denied various freedoms including the right to choose his employer, to enter into a fresh contract with the same employer or to negotiate the terms and condition of his contract.
India has ratified ILO Convention No.29 (Forced Labour Convention 1930) on 30.11.1954. Bonded labour or forced labour violates the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution of India. Article 23(1) in Part III of the Indian Constitution relating to Fundamental Rights states that traffic in human beings and begars and other forms of forced labour are prohibited and any contravention of the provision shall be an offence, punishable by law. Article 35 (a) (ii) of the constitution confers power on the Parliament to provide for punishment for the contravention of the said provisions of Article 23(1) and also takes away power of the State Legislature to make any legislation with regard to the same matter. In 1976, the law addressing the problem of bonded and forced labour was legislated by the Indian Parliament as The Bonded Labour System Abolition Act, 1976. The Act provides for the abolition of bonded labour, bonded labour system and bonded debt.
Institutional mechanisms in the form of Vigilance Committees at the district and sub-divisional levels under the Chairmanship of District and Sub-Divisional Magistrates have been provided for, in the Statute. Whoever wants to file a complaint under the law about existence of bonded/forced labour in any part of the territory of India should file it before the Vigilance Committee under the Act. Executive Magistrates have been empowered under the Act to conduct summary trial of offences, to release the bonded labourers and to issue release certificates. The Act also lays down stringent penal provisions against offending employers. The penalties include imprisonment for a term which may extend to 3 years and also with fine which may extend to Rs.2,000.
To assist the State Governments in their task of rehabilitation of released bonded labourers, the Ministry of Labour has launched a Centrally Sponsored Scheme since May 1978 for rehabilitation of freed bonded labourers. Under the scheme, the Government of India extends rehabilitation assistance @ Rs.10,000 per freed bonded labourer.
In the Writ Petition No.3922/85 the Supreme Court in its order dated 11.11.97, has requested the National Human Rights Commission to be involved in dealing with the issue of bonded labour. In pursuance of the above order of the Supreme Court, a Central Action Group has been constituted in the National Human Rights Commission. The CAG is holding regular meetings/ sensitization workshops at various places in collaboration with the Ministry of Labour and Employment and the matter is being pursued with the State Governments.