CHENNAI, INDIA, March 04, 2016
In an ongoing rescue operation, Indian police and IJM staff have rescued 564 children, women and men from forced labour slavery at a massive brick kiln.
This is IJM’s largest anti-slavery operation ever—and it took place in the exact same, sprawling factory where we helped rescue more than 500 people in 2011.
The kiln owner had evaded arrest in that first operation, but today his impunity has ended. Police arrested him and five other accomplices from an organized trafficking network. They are currently in custody and will face charges under India’s anti-trafficking laws and Bonded Labour Act.
The operation highlights a critical need in the fight against slavery: If criminals remain free, the violence will continue. But if laws are enforced and traffickers go to jail, we can end slavery for good.
Stunned by their chance at rescue
The rescue operation began with a frantic phone call from an escaped labourer sharing stories of shocking abuse. A team of trained police, government officials and IJM staff entered the brick kiln on Wednesday morning, and they found hundreds of families already toiling under the hot sun.
When officials explained that rescue had arrived, many couldn’t believe it was real. One government officer asked the crowd "Who wants to go free?” but he was met with a stunned silence. Slowly, one man raised his hand, then another. Soon dozens of tired hands shot into the air, ready to finally exit into safety.
As police gathered evidence and arrested the kiln’s owners, the families packed up their few belongings—some even running with excitement—and prepared to leave the kiln.
Authorities brought them to a prearranged wedding hall to rest, then documented their stories and prepared official Release Certificates to grant their freedom. These certificates dissolve the false debts and other lies that held these families in slavery. In total, 373 received certificates—the most ever in an IJM case. The remainder were mostly adults, children or elderly dependents too frail to work in the kiln.
Testimonies reveal years of brutal abuse
The rescued families painted a vivid picture of modern-day slavery. They had lived in tiny tin-roofed rooms or tattered tents. Families received a weekly allowance of 400 rupees (less than $6), barely enough to buy the lowest-quality rice. Many went without eating for days at a time.
At 3:00 every morning, the labourers began long days of molding, stacking and hauling heavy bricks for hours on end. They suffered verbal and physical abuse and were watched at all times. If they were injured or complained of pain, the owner sent a "doctor” to give them pain pills and force them to continue.
Nearly 200 children lived inside the facility—almost half under 5 years old. While some were allowed to attend school, IJM learned that most children over age 12 laboured alongside their parents.
Pregnant women were also forced to work without slowing down. One woman said she was not allowed to deliver her baby in a hospital, but rather had to rely on other women in the kiln to help her deliver without medical care. The baby is now 2 months old.
Ready to return home
Over the next few days, Indian officials and IJM staff will stay with the families and make sure they have nourishing meals and medical care. IJM field workers will help the families return to their home villages by train on Friday.
For the next two years, IJM staff will meet with the families regularly and connect them to long-term rehabilitation programs and opportunities so they can rebuild lives in freedom.
IJM will support local police as they build the legal case against the kiln owner and the trafficking ring that helped him grow his business—hopefully ending this systematic abuse of the poor for good.