16 Years a Slave: A Father Set Free to Build a New Future for His Family

A police officer leads a father and son into freedom. The father was enslaved for 16 years weaving mats. His son had no reason to expect a different future.
A police officer leads a father and son into freedom. The father was enslaved for 16 years weaving mats. His son had no reason to expect a different future.
The hut where the family lived—but spent little time together since Ragesh had to report for work hours before dawn.
The hut where the family lived—but spent little time together since Ragesh had to report for work hours before dawn.
The weaving room where the couple was enslaved.
The weaving room where the couple was enslaved.

CHENNAI, INDIA – Ragesh had worked for the same man for sixteen years. He wove long, dried grass into colorful mats, much of the work done by hand. When he got married seven years ago, his wife joined him in the small business. But this couple was not employed; they were enslaved.

16 Years A Slave

Sixteen years ago, Ragesh’s mother was critically ill with tuberculosis. Desperate to help his family and save his mother’s life, Ragesh took a loan from the owner of this mat-making business. He would use the money to buy medicine for his mother, and repay it through his labor. But that loan was a trap. At 14 years old, Ragesh became a slave.

Ragesh’s work started at 2 a.m. most days, usually lasting until 6 or 7 p.m. His wife worked alongside him, feeding the long stalks of dried grass into an old machine and knotting the ends of the mat. She also worked as a housekeeper in the owner’s home.

They had two children, who lived a strange double life: permitted to go to school in the mornings, they learned just like the other kids in their classes. But in the afternoon, they had to work alongside their enslaved parents. Their tiny fingers were coarse from separating and tying the stalks of grass into uniform bundles that would later become a mat.

One of the Four Billion

Ragesh and his family illustrate the shocking statistic in a recent World Bank study that says 4 billion people live completely outside the protection of the law.  That number includes virtually all 2.5 billion of the world’s poorest—those living off of $2 a day or less.

Ragesh and his family were completely controlled by the owner of the mat-making business. They received less than $10 each week to buy the most basic food, and it was never enough to feed the family of four. They were treated like machinery—no sick days, no switching tasks, and certainly no looking for another job.

Ragesh remembers a day he was too sick to work. He said the owner came to his hut, started kicking him in the stomach where he was laying, then physically dragged him to the worksite. The physical violence was underscored by humiliation in front of his family.

Revealing Ancient Prejudices in Modern-Day Slavery

When IJM discovered this mat-making business, they learned that the owner employed more than a dozen other workers. These workers belonged to a higher caste than Ragesh and his wife, and the owner paid and treated them fairly as employees.

Despite anti-discriminatory laws on the books in India, a traditional, rigid caste system marginalizes those considered to belong to the lowest castes or tribes. People in these lower castes are often referred to as Dalits, or “untouchables,” and they are particularly vulnerable to forced labor slavery.

Though prejudice can sometimes be hidden, this case made it plain. Despite the fact that forced labor slavery was abolished in India more than forty years ago, Ragesh and his wife were clearly being exploited as slaves.

Bringing Rescue

IJM worked with a local government official to rescue the family on Friday, March 21. The rescue was smooth, despite the fact it was the first time IJM has ever rescued slaves from a mat-making business, and it was the first time this local official ever led an operation to free slaves.

IJM made sure the family spent that first night in a safe location, and the next day a district official interviewed Ragesh and his wife. Both adults received release certificates, legal documents that emancipate them from the owner’s control and entitle them to government benefits. The family is now part of IJM’s two-year aftercare program. The first step will be ensuring their home is a safe place to raise their family.

Bringing slave owners to justice in India is a slow and extremely difficult battle, but over the weekend IJM worked with the local official to file a complaint against the owner of this mat-making business—the first step in an eventual prosecution. IJM lawyers will keep following up with the case to ensure charges are made and this man is held accountable.

 

*A pseudonym.