My review of Siddarth Kara’s book Bonded Labor

Child bonded labourers turning bricks to dry in Indian kiln

Child bonded labourers turning bricks to dry in Indian kiln

Bonded labour is the most common form of slavery in the world and Siddarth Kara’s book provides a useful survey, drawn from years of research and interviews with bonded labourers, of bonded labour as it is practiced today across a range of industries in South Asia.

It is in these descriptions and in some of the economic analysis of the bonded labour economy that the book is at its strongest. It is considerably weaker in proposing solutions to bonded labour. Some of his proposals, such as having a transnational police force in South Asia to deal with slavery are, to put it mildly, utopian, particularly given the current political tensions in the region, and problematic from the perspective of rule of law. For example how could the democratic accountability of such a force be assured? The governance structure that Kara proposes, of an oversight board composed of people from the Human Rights Commissions of the participating countries and some NGOs, is far from convincing.

Other of his ideas, such as fast tracking of slavery cases through the courts display a limited understanding of the relationship between continuing slavery practices and poor standards of rule of law: many of the effective solutions to slavery in India for example, are dependent on raising the standards of rule of law across a range of issues, many of which, such as the Indian compulsory education law, are not, ostensibly, about slavery.

So while Kara is good on the economics of bonded labour and its practice in particular industries, he shows much more limited appreciation of the political, institutional and cultural factors necessary in slavery eradication. It is a pity that he did not work with co-authors on this book, to strengthen his talents and idealism with some hard headed appreciation of how political and social change actually occur.

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