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Contemporary Forms of Bonded Labour in Southeast Asia

Applicant Znoj Heinzpeter
Number 112348
Funding scheme Project funding
Research institution Institut für Sozialanthropologie Universität Bern
Institution of higher education University of Berne - BE
Main discipline Ethnology
Start/End 01.07.2006 - 28.02.2010
Approved amount 549'615.00
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Keywords (9)

bonded labour; dependency; labour migration; debt; social obligations; gender; Southeast Asia; Debt Bondage; Indentured Labour

Lay Summary (English)

Lay summary
In Southeast Asia many workers - women, men and children - are tied to their employers through debt, obligation and coercion. Bonded labour, although long expected gradually to disappear with economic growth and societal development, remains a common phenomenon in Southeast Asia. The fast economic development and social changes related to the globalization of financial markets, industrial production, trade and consumer tastes has led to a very competitive environment in most parts of the region. The need for cash, the lack of well-paid jobs, and in some sectors of the societies, the absence of reliable networks of solidarity forces many to accept work at very unfavourable conditions and to enter into bonded labour arrangement as house workers, prostitutes, construction or plantation workers or forest product collectors. We may distinguish thereby between debt bondage, mediated through patronage relations, and indentured labour, mediated by brokers.
In this research project, we ask about the conditions, mechanisms and discourses that cause, enable and legitimize bonded labour arrangements and how these impact on the social fabric in Southeast Asia. The research will be methodologically determined by a view of bonded labour that goes beyond considering it as a purely economic relationship. Rather, we view it as a personal relationship of dependency, or a network of such relationships, which are socially and culturally embedded and ambiguously characterised by exploitation and mutual obligation. This approach will allow us to explore the various meanings of bonded labour.
The regional scope of the research project offers a unique opportunity to adopt an in-depth comparative approach to the phenomenon of bonded labour.The project consists of five subprojects that all use qualitative methods and depart from the same set of analytical questions and hypotheses. The subprojects involve contrasting case studies conducted in different countries (Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and Kuwait), in different settings (rural, urban; national, international) and among marginalised and/or illegal labourers in different sectors (small-scale industry, construction, domestic work, prostitution and forest product collection).
The research project is a joint effort involving the Institute for Social Anthropology, University of Berne and the Graduate Institute of Development Studies (IUED), University of Geneva, and builds on long-standing academic contacts between colleagues in Switzerland, Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia, and other European academic institutions.
Further information: Project Coordinator Dr. Annuska Derks(
Direct link to Lay Summary Last update: 21.02.2013

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