Forced labour has taken on many forms over the centuries.The Ancient Greeks called it debt bondage, whilst their Roman counterparts preferred the title of Nexum. During the Middle Ages much of the peasant populations of Europe suffered under the yolk of feudalism, before the arrival of the Black Death created something of a downturn in the labour market. In these more enlightened times debt bondage has, thankfully, been outlawed across much of the planet and the United Nations have seen fit to define it as a form of ‘modern day slavery’ in an attempt to eradicate it completely. However, in 2006 there were still estimated to be over 18 million bonded slaves, struggling to rid themselves of debts that had been passed down through generations of the same family.
The Kamaiya of western Nepal were one such group. As recently as 12 years ago they were still being forced to work as little more than slaves, paying off debts that had been accrued decades before they were even born. Then, in July 2000, the Nepalese government, in an act of charitable benevolence and stunning bureaucratic ineptitude, outlawed the practise and cancelled all their debts. Freed of a lifetime of bonded servitude, these people now found themselves homeless, as their previous landlords evicted them. The government promised resettlement and land, but over a decade later many of them are still suffering intolerable hardships and, in a country where a third of the population live below the poverty line, they remain amongst the poorest people in Nepal. Today, around 20,000 families are still waiting for the land that was promised them and many still live in temporary shelters that are little more than plastic sheeting and rags, held together with bamboo, twine and hope. Most also lack proper sanitation and hundreds of women and children succumb to diarrhoea, cholera and typhoid each year.
Four years ago I went out to western Nepal, to work with the Kamaiya on a project that was funded by Action Aid. They were interesting times. We were camped in a field next to the work site and each morning we would wake to find the entire village encamped on our doorstep waiting for us. They would patiently sit there and watch us wash and eat breakfast, before escorting us en masse to our day’s labours. I remember hearing the news of Obama’s victory in the US Presidential elections whilst sat in a ditch in the foothills of the Himalayas and I recall a particularly humiliating football match that saw us unceremoniously thrashed by an elite squad of barefooted children. It’s strange what sticks in the memory.
In two weeks time I will be heading back out there. It will be interesting to see how much has changed in four years. Action Aid continue to try to work to improve the lives of the Kamaiya, by providing them with secure housing and access to health and education facilities. Obama I fear may well have become a footnote in history by then, but somehow I doubt that the Kamaiya will even register it…they have far more pressing issues to worry about.