The fate of families in bonded labour used to rest solely with the decisions of their local government. But today, victims waiting for relief can also rely on powerful state-level agencies working to protect all citizens of Tamil Nadu and ensure local officials fully protect those in need.
Such has been the case with the State Human Rights Commission (SHRC), which is responsible for protecting citizens’ human rights, ensuring government officials perform their duties, and mediating legal cases that pertain to human rights violations. The SHRC has increasingly stepped in over the last few years when local officials failed to follow the law in bonded labour cases.
In the last few months, the SHRC was prompted to action after the tragic death of a two-year-old boy on May 7. He was killed by a live wire at a brick kiln in Dharmapuri district, in the northwestern part of the state.
News of the boy’s tragic death reached READ, an IJM partner working in the area, who also confirmed that the boy’s family and eight other people at the kiln were being forced to work in dangerous bonded labour conditions. But when READ brought the case to local officials, they failed to follow the state’s procedures on bonded labour, to investigate the case fully, or to protect the labourers from the abusive owner.
Undeterred, READ staff helped the two-year-old’s father file a petition to the SRHC seeking justice for their family. The SHRC immediately took up the case, personally investigated the brick kiln and what happened, and summoned local officials to revisit the case.
With new pressure from the state, these local officials then went back to the brick kiln for a full enquiry under the law. They rescued all ten victims in June and gave them Release Certificates to prove their freedom. Authorities also arranged transportation back to the victims’ hometown and promised to ensure their ongoing safety.
Following this case, the district leader led two more inspections at nearby facilities and rescued five additional victims of bonded labour.
The success of these three rescue operations proves the incredible value of state accountability measures to equip local leaders and ensure they are protecting people in poverty.
IJM has not yet worked directly in this district but has engaged regularly with the SHRC and provided trainings on cases like these. They have steadily improved their knowledge of bonded labour laws and increasingly taken action to prompt local authorities where gaps exist. The payoff in terms of justice for victims has been enormous: In the past, there was almost nothing an NGO could do to convince officials to follow the law. It could have taken years to re-visit cases like this one—but it now takes only a few weeks of leadership from the state to ensure rescue moves forward.
For families trapped in bonded labour across the state today, this speedier and more sensitive intervention makes all the difference.