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Revisiting Worksites Shows Criminal Deterrence in Action

Overgrown weeds now cover the locked gates of the lumber yard—a stark contrast to how this bustling business in Tamil Nadu looked just two years ago.

Back in March 2019, this business was the site of a critical rescue operation in the state’s fight against bonded labour. Local authorities, supported by IJM, freed 31 children, women and men who had been forced to work here. Importantly, they also arrested and charged the business owner for exploiting them and breaking the law.

It was this man’s second time getting caught for exploiting impoverished families, but the first where he was actually held accountable. His shuttered business proves how necessary criminal accountability must be in protecting communities in a very real way.

Revisiting the shuttered gates at the lumber yard was part of a recent exercise by IJM Chennai to gauge how criminals have been deterred by government law enforcement in their area. Earlier this year, IJM revisited six worksites—including two rice mills, two brick kilns, a cattle farm, and the woodcutting unit—where we had assisted authorities on rescue operations back in 2019.

All of these cases are currently progressing through the justice system. Police have filed First Information Reports (FIRs) in all six cases; charges have been filed in four; and the owners were formally arrested in three so far.

In the recent visits, IJM found that two of the worksites, including the woodcutting unit, had completely ceased operations. Four others were still functioning, but with dramatically improved conditions for their employees.

Today, these labourers are working freely, without manipulative loans that trap them in debt bondage. No children were found working, and all of the employees said they were aware of bonded labour and of the previous rescue operations at their worksites. They were allowed to come and go freely, and they could take time for medical care or voting without issue—demonstrating a crucial change in employers’ attitudes toward the labourers since 2019.

IJM also learned that the owners at these sites were paying better wages to help families get by. In 2019, the owners paid an average of 43.6 rupees per day (about 59 cents). Today, they pay an average of 250 rupees per day (about $3.40), which is a 473% increase and better aligns with India’s minimum wage standards.

These six cases demonstrate how effective law enforcement—including arresting, charging and convicting perpetrators—has a deterrent effect among offenders and is now curbing exploitation in these worksites and others. Repeat offenders, like the owner of the lumber yard, now see they cannot continue to exploit impoverished labourers with impunity; there are real consequences for their actions.

This is the future we want to see, where local businesses can thrive without exploiting people in poverty and where families can trust they will be protected by the justice system. These changes demonstrate the impact of an effective justice system, made possible through IJM’s work over the last 20 years.

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