CHENNAI, INDIA – On 30 March 2021, an Indian judge convicted a local business owner for holding nine people in brutal bonded labour in a tree-cutting business. Some had been enslaved there for up to 15 years until they were rescued in July 2012.
The case was heard in a specialised court formed under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Act—a law protecting historically disadvantaged ethnic groups. Traffickers and slave holders often prey on these vulnerable communities, and, as a result, as many as 90 percent of bonded labour victims in India come from Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.
In this instance, the families had taken a loan from the business owner and promised to pay it back through their labour. But the owner inflated their debt with false interest so they could never repay it. He then moved them around to different worksites constantly and controlled everything they did.
In April 2012, IJM trained a group of local government officials on how to spot the signs of bonded labour like this. They discovered the plight of these nine people and, on 17 July 2012, mobilised an operation to rescue them and issued Release Certificates that broke their false debts to the owner.
Since then, IJM has supported the survivors (eight adults and one child) through our rehabilitative aftercare program as they rebuilt lives in freedom. We also supported the legal trial, which has been innovative in several key ways:
• The case initially moved slowly through the courts, until the High Court ordered it to be fast-tracked and completed in just eight weeks. This demonstrated the government’s commitment to addressing bonded labour, even during the COVID-19 pandemic.
• The High Court also admitted the Release Certificates as formal evidence, proving these families were in bondage and strengthening their testimony against the denial of the accused. This will set a precedent for future cases to allow these certificates as evidence.
• The judge allowed the lead police officer to provide evidence over video conference, rather than in person—allowing the case to move forward on schedule. This was the first IJM Chennai case to use video conferencing, and it helps courts see how technology can be a trustworthy tool to enact justice.
• The case was supported by the District Legal Services Authority (DLSA), a government agency that provides free legal services to those in need. The DLSA ensured survivor testimonies were submitted fairly and helped ensure the case moved quickly to reach the judgment. Working through the DLSA will be a sustainable solution for victims of bonded labour to seek justice in the future, without IJM’s help.
With the success of these innovations, the accused business owner was sentenced on 30 March under two sections of the SC/ST Act and under the Indian Penal Code related to forced labour. He has been sentenced to one year imprisonment and must pay compensation of 35,000 rupees (about A$600) to the survivors.
Today, the families in this case are all living independently in a special community for survivors of bonded labour. Several run small businesses (like charcoal-making) with other survivors, and many have shared their stories with other vulnerable communities. Now, with this harmful business owner convicted and news spreading, they can keep rebuilding in freedom knowing their community is better protected for the future.
Explore the story of Thaiyamma, enslaved at a lumber facility and now an advocate for an end to bonded labour.
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