Ever since India’s COVID-19 lockdown began, the world has been rattled by the stories of millions of migrant labourers stranded far from their homes and growing desperate without money, food or shelter. In many cases, these workers have been trapped at factories and worksites—as brutal business owners take advantage of the pandemic to extract more and more forced labour.
IJM’s team in Bangalore encountered one such incident through the case of 22 girls and young women from the state of Odisha who were trapped in a garment factory near the city.
These young women were being forced to toil for long hours and deprived of their wages. Often, they were pushed to work even when they were ill or hungry. As the lockdown extended, life became more and more unbearable every day. They had sent videos and urgent messages to family, friends and activists in Odisha, but were losing hope rescue would come.
With their petitions going unheard, these young women reported their plight to local newspaper Outlook India on May 22—made urgent by a young woman named Golap:
“We are only waiting to go home and stay with our family. We are not interested in work. The company owner keeps us to meet his target. The rising number of COVID-19 cases creates anxiety and fear within us. If anything happens and we die, our bodies will be left unnoticed,” says Golap with a mix of tears and anger.
As soon as IJM heard about the appalling conditions at the garment factory, our team began working through local contacts and eventually reached the women to offer support. We brought the case to the District Legal Services Authority (DLSA), who directed the police and local government to take immediate action and rescue the young women right away.
On Monday, June 1, a rescue team arrived at the factory expecting to find just 22 young women, but they actually found about 199 workers inside. Of these, 150 pleaded to return to their homes in Odisha. All of these girls and young women were quickly brought to safety, and officials arranged special trains to take them back home. Although IJM was not able to be present, we provided remote support to officials throughout the rescue.
Authorities are still investigating the factory owners and hope to file charges soon.
This joyful rescue coincided with a partnership IJM has been developing with the Railway Protection Force (RPF) police unit. Their “Operation Khushi” campaign is working to help stranded migrant workers return home safely, with special attention and support for children.
In this case, the RPF Senior Divisional Security Commissioner personally supervised and interacted with the girls and young women at the train station as they prepared to return home. The RPF also provided them with food, water and other essentials for a comfortable journey.
As they boarded the trains on Tuesday, the girls and young women could not stop thanking the officials as they bid them goodbye. They also called IJM staff to express their joy and thanks.
One IJM staff member shared joyfully, “If the best journey takes you home, then for these girls this will definitely be a journey that they will always remember.”