273 Freed In IJM's Second-Largest Anti-Slavery Operation Ever
CHENNAI, INDIA – In a stunning rescue operation that began yesterday and stretched into this morning, IJM helped local authorities rescue 273 people from lives of slavery in two brick factories.
The operation – IJM’s second-largest ever – began Monday with an urgent phone call from a government official who had just learned about a brick factory where several families were allegedly held as slaves. IJM staff immediately moved to action, securing contact with some of the laborers in the facility and confirming that they and their families had been exploited in the facility.
With heavy rain pouring down, the rescue team and government authorities drove down muddy roads to the brick factory. When the team arrived, the lead government official entered one of the tiny huts where the families were forced to live – it was so cramped that she could barely sit up straight, let alone stand.
When the laborers understood that the strangers were there to help them, all the families began pleading for rescue. The men and women told the rescue team how they weren’t allowed to leave the factory, and they were paid pennies at the end of the week, barely enough to pay for the food they needed to simply survive. They explained that even their young children had been forced to work. As evidence built of the horrific conditions in the kiln, the lead government official reported that the brick factory owner “showed no remorse” at the families’ pitiful living quarters or the exhausting work they were made to do.
Next door to the brick factory was a second facility owned by the same man. After having seen the conditions in the first facility, the government official and IJM team entered the second, where they discovered the same terrible conditions and more exploited children, women and men.
As desperate families streamed forward for assistance, it was soon obvious to the team that there were more people than they expected—many more people. Looking around, the team quickly estimated that, between the two facilities, there were dozens of families – more than 270 people – surrounding them, waiting for rescue.
As desperate families streamed forward for assistance, it was soon obvious to the team that there were more people than they expected—many more people. Looking around, the team quickly estimated that there were over 50 families – more than 270 people – surrounding them.
The IJM team helped the families gather their things and load into trucks. It was still pouring rain, and it was difficult to even count the men, women and children as they boarded the vehicles. They went to a nearby school, where they would be able to keep the families dry – though, due to a scheduled outage, there would be no power.
As the downpour continued, the rescue team set up two stations to conduct interviews with the victims using emergency lights.
Throughout the night, the released families shared similar, terrible stories: They had been given false promises of decent employment and the opportunity to repay small loans they had accepted from the owner. One of the men, Vinod*, said he had been working in Mumbai when he was recruited for this job at the brick factory. He decided to move his family, hopeful that the regular work would offer them a better future. But the promise was a lie. Instead Vinod and his family were forced to do hard labor every day for up to 17 or 20 hours. In desperation, Vinod tried to stand up for their rights; in response, the owner and his men locked him in a room for days without food. Six of the laborers, including four women, said they were brutally beaten when they asked to go back home. The laborers reported that children as young as 3 years old were forced to work.
Six of the laborers, including four women, said they were brutally beaten when they asked to go back home. The laborers reported that children as young as 3 years old were forced to work.
A turning tide
The government official was committed to work through the night to ensure that the laborers could share their stories and be officially released from the owner as quickly as possible. When IJM first began work in India more than 10 years ago, many government officials had received no training whatsoever on India’s laws against slavery, and the team often met with resistance.
Responses like this government official’s demonstrate the beginnings of a transformation in India. “Even with no electricity, in the pouring rain, the head government official led the team, which included the government officials and IJM staff, with determination and grit to find the bonded laborers. She ensured that the rescue team worked through the night tirelessly, in less than ideal conditions, to ensure freedom for the 273 laborers who were rescued,” says Alice Suganya, IJM Chennai’s Director of Casework.
The official determined that 189 had been forced to work as slaves (the rest of those in the facilities were their dependents – either too young or too old to be put to work) and were entitled to release certificates – the legal documents that emancipate them and entitle them to government compensation. IJM staff helped take photos of each person for these documents, printing the tiny passport-sized photos from a portable photo printer. Finally, by 6 a.m., the certificates were ready for the official’s signature.
Most of the laborers will now travel more than 24 hours by train to return to their home villages, where IJM will continue to provide the support they need to establish themselves in freedom. By Tuesday, as the families prepared to leave the school where they had spent the night, the skies had cleared and the sun was shining – and these 273 children, women and men were beginning a new chapter of life
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