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Boy and His Family Find Freedom Amid Pandemic’s Child Labour Spike

Today, a small family in southern India is free from bonded labour thanks to the diligent work of local law enforcement and an IJM goodwill partner in their impoverished community.

Just like thousands of other families, they had been devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic in India—which has caused a troubling increase in child labour and abuse across the region.

As they recover in freedom today, IJM and our partners are supporting the government to ensure all people can be protected, even as the pandemic wages on.

Boy’s Rescue Leads to Family’s Freedom

This case was led by the Integrated Rural Community Development Society (IRCDS), a local NGO who IJM had trained to identify bonded labour in Sivangangai district, in Tamil Nadu.

The IRCDS team discovered the 11-year-old boy grazing sheep in an isolated rural area and alerted authorities that it was likely a case of child bonded labour. The boy had been forced to take care of the sheep for the last three months all alone under the control of a local farm owner.

On June 16, a rescue team tracked his location and helped bring him to safety at a government office. As officials interviewed the boy further, they discovered more heartbreaking news: His whole family was actually trapped in bonded labour at a nearby brick kiln. In their desperation, they had pledged their son’s labour for a loan of 60,000 rupees (about $800 USD) from the sheep farm owner in order to buy their way out of the kiln. Yet they were still enslaved and had not been able to leave.

Hearing this, officials immediately traveled to the brick kiln to find the family and hear their story. The parents and three other children (ages 8, 6 and 1) were all brought to safety and reunited with their 11-year-old son. All of them were given Release Certificates—which break their false debts to the owners—and have been set up with bank accounts, basic provisions, and tools to help them start a sustainable small business. Officials have also promised to give them a plot of land and will help them construct a house.

Mr. Jeevanadham, the director of IRCDS, explained, “A lot of children are bearing the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic. A lot of children have been pushed into child bonded labour, robbing them of their childhood…It was really heartening to see the officials work in close coordination to rescue the boy.”

Authorities have also arrested the sheep farm owner and his accomplice who enslaved the boy and are working on charges under India’s anti-slavery laws.

Child Labour on the Rise

Sadly, as Mr. Jeevanadham shared, this case may be show a painful trend in how families in poverty are being affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. One recent study of vulnerable communities found a 94% increase in child labour cases due to the pandemic’s effect on families who used to earn an income through daily manual labour jobs (read more here).

One IJM staff member shared, “Many families have lost their livelihoods, resulting in them pledging their children to meet their needs and pay their debts. With schools being shut, children are also being lured into bonded labour.”

He added, “The government’s proactiveness in identifying and rescuing such children is noteworthy. Comprehensive and systematic planning in addressing this issue will further bring down the number of children being employed in bonded labour.”

As the pandemic wages on in India, IJM and our partners are committed to helping authorities find and protect other families like this one, so no others have to face the heartbreak and violence of bonded labour just because they are poor.

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