CHENNAI, INDIA – Four adults and three children are now free from violence at a sugarcane farm after an urgent rescue operation led by local authorities, IJM’s casework partner SHED India, and a survivor advocacy network.
Farming sugarcane is intense labour, with long hours in the harvesting season spent chopping and hauling heavy cane stalks in the hot sun. The farm in this case employed many different groups of labourers, but the two families rescued on 21 April had faced particularly brutal conditions under the control of the farm owner. Authorities have confirmed their situation was one of bonded labour slavery.
The farm owner had lured each of these young families with an advance of 30,000 rupees—about A$525, a massive sum in these impoverished communities—and then manipulated this debt to keep the families trapped. Over the last five months, he also used verbal abuse and frequent physical violence to control and terrify them. The three children—aged 10, 7 and 6—were not able to attend school. Instead, they watched their parents suffer.
The situation became especially urgent when the families were blocked from voting in state elections on 6 April—further erasing their autonomy and personhood. When one man tried to advocate for his rights, the owner beat him violently on the head and he had to be hospitalised.
A SHED India staff member described,
“As a citizen of India, every individual has their right to vote. To see their democratic right being denied is heartbreaking. The owners exercising power over their right is simply outrageous and unforgivable.”
After this violent beating, news about the families’ suffering reached local leaders in a survivor network called the Released Bonded Labourers Association (RBLA). RBLA leaders referred the case to IJM’s local casework partner SHED India, who also involved the One Stop Crisis Team (OSCT), a multi-agency government taskforce that combats bonded labour.
On 21 April, the SHED India team joined the OSCT and local authorities on a rescue operation at the farm to determine the truth and end the owner’s abuse. Officials interviewed the families on-site to confirm they were in fact in bondage, and then brought them to safety at a government office to file their official statements, rest, and begin the journey of recovery. They have been granted Release Certificates, which formally mark them as free and break all bonds to the owner.
As the survivors packed their belongings and began to emotionally process the day, one man could already see how different his life could become in freedom. He shared:
“When I was there in the farm—even though it was only for five months—it was like five years. The owner had complete control on my life. I was told where to go, when to go, and was often denied permission in desperate situations. Today I can walk about freely. I get to do what I like, go where I want, and I am free!”
Next, the two families will be supported in their recovery by the RBLA in their hometown. Survivors who know their struggles will help them adjust to life in freedom, find dignified work, get children in school, and begin building a future they can be proud of. The Labour Department will also help the families open bank accounts and access government funds to aid in their restoration.
Police are in the process of filing an official report against the farm owner, and SHED India staff will continue to support them in holding the suspects accountable under the law.
SHED India staff commended the OSCT for their quick and detailed planning on their first rescue operation in Pudokottai District, even despite serious challenges in the state.
Their program officer explained: “Due to the current COVID-19 crisis situation and the elections, there was a slight setback. But, under the direction of the District Legal Services Authority (DLSA), they went ahead and rescued these labourers—making sure that the labourers’ freedom is a priority for the government. To see utmost coordination and cooperation among the different departments to work in tandem for a rescue is truly commendable.”
The image above depicts survivors leaving the farm and into their new lives in freedom.
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