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South Asia

Survivor Leaders Help Rescue 13 People from Charcoal Business

CHENNAI, INDIA – Thirteen people—including five children—are now free from bonded labour at a charcoal business, thanks to the work of diligent local authorities and a courageous survivor advocacy network.

These three families had been exploited for the last three years, until their plight was discovered by the Released Bonded Labourers Association (RBLA) this month. The RBLA includes more than 2,000 survivors across Tamil Nadu, who support one another and work together to end bonded labour in the state.

After a successful rescue operation on 10 April the families are now resettling in a safe community and taking control of their own lives once again.

Debts, Control and Violence

Several years ago, one of the survivors in this case—a man named Shankar—had run his own small-scale charcoal business with his family in their native village. The owner of a larger charcoal company started buying from him and began offering the family loans to improve their equipment. In 2018, he invited Shankar’s family to move to his facility and work directly for him for better pay. Shankar agreed and invited some relatives to join them.

At this new facility, the families had to live in crude tents just behind the owner’s brand-new two-storey office. They were told to travel to rural areas to chop wood (at their own expense) and then bring it back to the business to be fired into charcoal. Each week, they were expected to make 200 bags of charcoal weighing up to 100 kilos. It was tough, time-intensive labour, and even the young children had to help meet their quotas.

All three families were paid just 1,000 rupees per week (about A$17) to cover food, medical care, travel and other expenses. When they tried to get extra jobs at a local brick kiln to make ends meet, the owner hunted them down and brought them back. He claimed they owed him 263,900 rupees (about A$4,500), which the impoverished families could never hope to repay.

For the next three years, these families became trapped in a brutal cycle of bonded labour slavery.  The owner controlled everything they did and where they went.

They could not attend religious festivals or family events, like weddings or funerals. Only one person could go to the market at a time, to ensure the families never tried to escape. He blocked them from getting food support from the government and even beat them up when he discovered they had snuck away to vote in a local election.

Even when Shankar’s niece, Devi, became pregnant, she was never allowed to visit a hospital and had to deliver her baby at the worksite. The owner forced her back to work just a few days after giving birth.

After years in these conditions, the families were losing hope of ever going free—until a group of survivors just like them heard about their plight.

Government Makes Protection Possible

In April 2021, leaders from the RBLA in Vellore District discovered these victims struggling under the violence and control at the charcoal factory. They notified local officials and helped organise a rescue operation on 10 April to bring the survivors to safety.

Officials inspected the worksite and interviewed each of the labourers thoroughly to confirm the truth. They brought the families back to a government office, where they could have a warm meal and share their experiences in peace.

As they learned more, authorities confirmed that three of the children (aged 17, 7 and 5) had been forced to work. They then gave all 13 people (including a 2-year-old and 4-month-old) Release Certificates, which break their false bonds to the owner and formally declare them as free. Long-term, the certificates will help these families access funding and other government benefits specifically for former bonded labourers.

Police took the business owner into custody and have filed an official report against him for charges related to the abuse and exploitation.

IJM staff were grateful to see local government officials handle this case with sensitivity and a deep understanding of the law. They took their time documenting the survivors’ stories and helped them understand the process of becoming free, step by step.

RBLA coordinator Sampath described, “The Sub-Collector was in support of the victims and encouraged them to share the truth boldly and made sure that every deserving victim—including the children—received the much-needed Release Certificate.”

For Govindhammal, one of the RBLA leaders who assisted on the case, seeing these survivors safe and protected was a huge relief. She shares,

“It wasn’t an easy rescue today. There were a lot of challenges, yet all of our pain vanished when we saw the survivors receive Release Certificates.”

Going forward, the Sub-Collector has also promised to help the families get plots of land where they can build stable houses. Local officials and the RBLA have assisted the survivors in opening bank accounts and setting up other tools they need to rebuild life in freedom. The three families in this case will also be invited to enrol in the RBLA, so they can be supported in their recover long-term.

Read media coverage of this rescue in The Hindu and The Daily Thanthi.

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