TAMIL NADU, INDIA – On Feb. 4, four adults were liberated from six years of labour exploitation at a mango grove thanks to proactive government officials and a group of survivor leaders.
These two couples had been deceived into working at the grove years ago when the owner gave them a payment advance (5,000 rupees) and promised good work. Instead, he and his site manager used this advance as a debt to keep the couples trapped—charging more interest than they could ever repay.
Every day, the women and men were forced to toil long hours to grow, harvest, and haul mangoes for just 60 rupees “payment” per day (about 7 US cents). The grove covered 38 acres of land, so they were kept working endlessly and often had time for only one small meal a day. The owner controlled their movements in and out of the farm and even forced them to work when they were ill. If they ever complained or asked to visit home, they faced intense verbal abuse and threats.
Everything changed when their state’s Labour Department instructed local governments to conduct surprise checks at worksites in advance of Bonded Labour Abolition Day (Feb. 9), an annual observance of the passage of India’s Bonded Labour System Abolition Act. Local authorities in Tiruvallur District inspected the mango grove, discovered the four victims in bondage, and called IJM for assistance in rescuing them.
On Saturday, Feb. 4, authorities led a rescue operation at the mango grove with assistance from IJM staff and the Released Bonded Labourers Association (RBLA), a network of survivor leaders combating bonded labour from their own lived experience. Though the top official – the Revenue District Officer – was new to this work, she led the team courageously to ensure the couples were freed.
“I am thankful to RBLA and IJM for helping us through this process of rescue,” she said.
“My team and I are ever ready and present to rescue many more who are caught in the clutches of this bonded labour system and provide a meaningful life for them in freedom.”
After packing their belongings in a small yellow truck, the four survivors were brought to safety at a government office. They received warm meals and necessities, and then were given Release Certificates to break their false debts to the owner. These certificates provide critical legal evidence of their enslavement and help them access ongoing benefits for their recovery. Officials from the Labour Department also opened bank accounts for the survivors, where they will soon receive government funds to aid in their rehabilitation.
Authorities have completed their investigation and filed a First Information Report (FIR) against the mango grove owner and manager, which will lead to formal charges and the legal case against them.
These survivors will also get ongoing aftercare support from the RBLA – meeting other women and men who know their struggles and have rebuilt a dignified life in freedom.