CHENNAI, INDIA – Last week, a group of survivor leaders in the Released Bonded Labourers’ Association (RBLA) helped authorities free 11 people from an abusive wood-cutting business, including an 11-year-old boy who had been forced to work alongside the adults.
These victims had been trafficked from the Irula community, a tribal ethnic group living in Tamil Nadu. A man from their own community recruited them for good jobs at a wood-cutting business in the neighbouring state of Andhra Pradesh and even offered a payment advance of 5,000 rupees (about $65 USD) to entice them to move.
But once the families arrived, they fell under the control of a brutal business owner who began exploiting them for their work. He moved them constantly around the countryside between Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. They had to chop down trees and process lumber for 20 hours a day—all while being subjected to extreme verbal abuse (especially the women). They were never allowed to leave his control.
The owner also left them to live in appalling conditions: They slept in open fields—no matter the rain or heat—and could only get water from a nearby reservoir that often contained sewage. They had each been promised 1,000 rupees for every ton of wood, but the owner gave them only 1,000 rupees for the entire group. This was barely enough to buy basic necessities, so they lived for over a year off the low-quality rice the owner provided.
Desperately Seeking Safety
About three months ago, the owner ran into legal issues with some land he was clearing and allowed the labourers to return home briefly. In early March, he called the labourers and demanded they return. When a labourer named Rajendran refused, the owner showed up angrily at his village and threatened to break Rajendran’s legs if the families did not return.
Terrified, Rajendran’s wife and children travelled immediately to Meesanallur—a “model village” developed in Tamil Nadu for survivors of bonded labour. They reported their plight to the RBLA leaders there, who took their case to the district’s Revenue Division Officer (RDO) in the local government.
On March 16, the RDO assembled a rescue team and travelled with RBLA leaders to meet the families and free them from abuse. Arul, one of the RBLA leaders, shared:
“Even though the RDO was a newly appointed official and did not have experience in bonded labour rescues, the moment we gave the information, a team was formed immediately, and rescue happened. They were cooperative and sensitive to the labourers’ needs. The officials arranged for food, medical treatment for a person with injuries, and victim drop [back at their homes]. The owner was also brought to the police station on the spot for questioning. It was very heartening to see new officials also approach the issue of bonded labour with concern and urgency.”
Officials provided the rescued families with Release Certificates, which formally break their bonds to the owner and declare them as free. These certificates will also help them get long-term rehabilitation support from the government as they rebuild a life in safety.
RBLA leaders will be following up with the rescued families on aftercare and the next steps of the legal case.