CHENNAI, INDIA – On Thursday, October 22, IJM worked with local authorities to rescue five families from bonded labour at a wood-cutting site where many had been enslaved for the last five years.
The 17 labourers had to chop down trees and brush from an isolated rural area every day for the profit of a local businessman. Six children were forced to do this work alongside their parents, including a 12-year-old girl and five boys (ages 5 to 12). At night, the families slept in crude tents made of tarps and branches, but otherwise were open to the elements.
“It was a sad sight to see the victims’ quarters,” one IJM staff member shared later. “Children were exposed to these precarious living conditions during inclement weather and were undernourished. They were forced to work—missing the joys of their childhood.”
Two of the families had begun working at this site five years ago after a middleman promised them good work and fair pay. He and the owner gave them payment advances of about 10,000 rupees (A$180) that they could pay off with their labour. But this whole system was a trap that kept them enslaved. By charging illegal interest, the owner now claimed each family owed him 45,000 rupees (about A$820), which would be impossible for them to repay.
Even worse, the owner proved to be relentlessly cruel toward all of the labourers. He used physical violence and brutal insults to keep them working seven days a week, even during COVID-19 lockdowns. He also allegedly sexually assaulted at least one woman.
Two weeks ago, one of the families tried to escape this abuse, but the owner tracked them down and beat them with a wooden log. The terrifying incident pushed the other families to reach out for help in the community, which brought the case to IJM.
Our team rallied local law enforcement to inspect the worksite on October 22 and confirm the brutal truth. Even as we arrived, young children were already at work chopping wood.
The lead government official on the case shared, “I am shocked to see children working here. Also, the women labourers have undergone inexplicable torture. I want the [police report] to be filed with all the relevant laws and ensure the perpetrator is not spared.”
Authorities brought the families to safety, took their detailed testimonies, and gave them Release Certificates, which break their false debts to the owner and formally declare them as free. These certificates also help them get various benefits—like food aid, legal protection and financial support—as they rebuild life in freedom.
The following day (October 23) authorities arrested the owner and took him into custody. IJM will help support public prosecutors in the legal trial against him—so he cannot hurt other people again.
One IJM staff member shared, “To see the District Administration treat this as a priority during COVID-19 and rescue these precious lives speaks volumes on how the public justice system has started to care for those in poverty, making justice for them unstoppable.”
Next, the families will be taken back to their hometowns and will join IJM’s two-year aftercare program, which will help them adjust to life in freedom, overcome trauma, and learn new skills to help them stay safe long-term.
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