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Is Bonded Labor Voluntary? Evidence from the Liberation of the Kamaiyas in the Far-Western Region of Nepal

  • Espen Villanger

The UN estimates that 20 million are held in bonded labor. Several economic analyses assert that bonded laborers accept these contracts voluntarily, which could imply that a ban would make such laborers worse off. We question the voluntary nature of bonded labor, discuss different theories and new evidence on the issue, and propose a new mechanism whereby landlords keep workers trapped. With different types of landlords not revealed to the laborer, we show how some landlords manipulate loan terms so that the laborer becomes bonded if future labor is rendered as collateral. Enforcement mechanisms and the monopolistic market for credit thus play a joint role. Providing alternative sources of credit, offering proper conflict resolution institutions for settling labor-contract disputes and banning the practice of bonded labor could emancipate bonded laborers, which would make them better off.

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Paper provided by CMI (Chr. Michelsen Institute), Bergen, Norway in its series CMI Working Papers with number 16.

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Length: 25 pages
Date of creation: 2006
Date of revision:
Handle: RePEc:chm:wpaper:wp2006-16
Contact details of provider: Postal: P.O. Box 6033, N-5020 Bergen
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  1. Bhaduri, Amit, 1977. "On the Formation of Usurious Interest Rates in Backward Agriculture," Cambridge Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 1(4), pages 341-52, December.
  2. Debra Satz, 2003. "Child Labor: A Normative Perspective," World Bank Economic Review, World Bank Group, vol. 17(2), pages 297-309, December.
  3. Bardhan, Pranab K, 1983. "Labor-Tying in a Poor Agrarian Economy: A Theoretical and Empirical Analysis," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, MIT Press, vol. 98(3), pages 501-14, August.
  4. Hatlebakk, M., 2000. "A New and Robust Subgame Perfect Equilibrium in a Model of Triadic Power Relations," Norway; Department of Economics, University of Bergen 2400, Department of Economics, University of Bergen.
  5. Akerlof, George A, 1976. "The Economics of Caste and of the Rat Race and Other Woeful Tales," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, MIT Press, vol. 90(4), pages 599-617, November.
  6. Genicot, Garance, 2002. "Bonded labor and serfdom: a paradox of voluntary choice," Journal of Development Economics, Elsevier, vol. 67(1), pages 101-127, February.
  7. Mukherjee, Anindita & Ray, Debraj, 1995. "Labor tying," Journal of Development Economics, Elsevier, vol. 47(2), pages 207-239, August.
  8. Eswaran, Mukesh & Kotwal, Ashok, 1985. "A Theory of Two-Tier Labor Markets in Agrarian Economies," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 75(1), pages 162-77, March.
  9. Schaffner, Julie Anderson, 1995. "Attached farm labor, limited horizons and servility," Journal of Development Economics, Elsevier, vol. 47(2), pages 241-270, August.
  10. Basu, Kaushik, 1986. "One Kind of Power," Oxford Economic Papers, Oxford University Press, vol. 38(2), pages 259-82, July.
  11. Magnus Hatlebakk, 2006. "The effects of agrarian contracts of a governmental intervention into bonded labor in the western terai of Nepal," CMI Working Papers WP 2006: 6, CMI (Chr. Michelsen Institute), Bergen, Norway.
  12. Shapiro, Carl & Stiglitz, Joseph E, 1984. "Equilibrium Unemployment as a Worker Discipline Device," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 74(3), pages 433-44, June.
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