Indentured labour from South Asia (1834-1917)
The conditions at work were harsh, with long working hours and low wages. Given the weak physical condition of the labourers after the long voyage, this took its toll. Available records indicate that the annual mortality rate for Jamaica in 1870 was 12%, and little changed over the years, as thirty years later the same figure was common for Mauritius. Children were expected to work alongside their parents from the time they were 5 years old.
Many workers tried to escape their harsh life but were recaptured, and imprisoned. Sometimes their initial five year contract was doubled to ten years for attempted desertion. At the end of the contract, while some workers chose to return, others decided to stay where they were, particularly women who had left home following a disagreement with their parents because they were unlikely to be accepted back into their family after several years away in a distant country. Contrary to popular belief, the vast majority of those who worked on the Kenya-Uganda railways returned to India after the end of their contract.
Migrant workers did try to oppose the abuses of the indentured labour system, but this was difficult. Some sent petitions to the agents of the colonial government who administered the indenture system. According to historical records, indentured workers carried out acts of sabotage and revenge against the plantation owners on numerous occasions, but this just resulted in increased repression.
To the voices of the indentured workers was added the dissenting voice of the growing Indian nationalist movement. Mahatma Gandhi, the leader of the Indian freedom movement, saw first hand the plight of Asian indentured labourers in South Africa and campaigned on this issue during the first decade of the 20th century. The system of indentured labour was officially abolished by British government in 1917.