CHENNAI, INDIA – Today, nearly 150 children, women and men are celebrating freedom, rescued from slavery this week outside Hyderabad, India. More than 100 women and men – plus seven children as young as 3 years old – received official release certificates emancipating them from slavery in a brick factory.
The men and women shared how they had been physically beaten and forced to work 18 to 22 hours a day – sleeping for an hour or two and then resuming their back-breaking work in the brick kiln. A pregnant woman told how she had pleaded for rest when she was pregnant; instead, she was kicked by her manager. One man had raw wounds so deep that the bone showed through.
Their grueling work schedule permitted them little time to eat; the workers were so malnourished that after they ate their first full meal in a long time, many of them vomited. They had been trapped in the factory for three to seven months.
The children who were strong enough to carry bricks were put to work. Mana,* a 3-year-old girl, worked beside her parents for eight hours a day, turning bricks in the hot sun to ensure that the moisture evaporated uniformly in the heat. At first, the government officials could not believe that a girl so small could have worked. But they were convinced when Mana demonstrated the careful turning motion she used, over and over, to turn brick after brick every day. Thirty-four other children were rescued, and none of them had been allowed to go to school. The youngest was only 4 months old. The adults and children were kept under strict watch, not even allowed to go the marketplace without a manager accompanying them.
They were trapped, slaves in every sense of the word.
Last year, IJM began training NGOs on techniques to identify and document cases of forced labor slavery – rampant throughout India. Jana Jagriti Kendra (JJK), based out of South India, is one of the partner human rights and development NGOs that received the training. On January 5, JJK called IJM for help with a forced labor slavery case.
"After their first night out of the brick kiln, I asked them what they had liked the most. They said, 'Sleeping.' That one word response hit me hard. Their lives had been totally controlled by their master. Their labor was for his profit. Even sleep was not their own."-- Anu George Canjanathoppil, IJM
A slave had escaped and found JJK, begging for help. Based on JJK's initial investigation into the case, they believed three families were trapped inside the brick kiln. A small team of experienced IJM staff flew from Chennai to Hyderabad early in the morning on January 8. They met with JJK staff and district government officials to plan the operation.
The government assembled a rescue team with police, plus support staff from both IJM and JJK. When they arrived at the brick kiln around 8:30 p.m., it was pitch black. Men, women and some children were still working. They dropped their tools as soon as they realized the team was there to bring them out of the abusive brick kiln.
Dozens more started to emerge, desperate to leave the brick kiln. Instead of three families, 36 families – 149 people in total – piled into trucks and drove out of the factory into freedom.
Out of that dark night, a new day was beginning.
The government official in charge directed everyone back to her office so they could document the families' stories and issue release certificates. Immediately, the officials ordered meals for the families, making sure there was bread and milk for the children. The simple food of rice and curry was served on golden-colored paper plates; it was the first decent meal they had had in months.
IJM staff provided crisis care and helped the government document the stories. Many of the men and women recounted awful abuse and showed wounds of physical brutality. Working through the night, the government determined 114 men, women and children would receive official release certificates – legal documents that emancipate them from slavery and entitle them to government benefits for forced labor slaves.
"After their first night out of the brick kiln, I asked them what they had liked the most," said Anu George Canjanathoppil, IJM's Director of Google Interventions Project. "They said, 'Sleeping.' That one word response hit me hard. Their lives had been totally controlled by their master. Their labor was for his profit. Even sleep was not their own."
On January 10, 2013, the government officials presented the release certificates, plus 1000 rupees (about $20) – the initial installment of the monetary compensation they will receive to usher in a new life. For some, it was a moment they thought would never come.
Thanks to government leadership, lives are forever changed.
The rescue operation brought freedom to nearly 150 people, changing each individual life forever. It also demonstrated the importance of partnerships to bring about systemic change, the kind of change that can bring rescue on a massive scale. IJM will continue to advise JJK as they help provide aftercare services to the 36 rescued families, who returned to their home states by train.
Many of the families were in tears as they waved to the rescue team from the train heading home. Before leaving for her village, one elderly woman wanted to bid farewell to the team. She jumped off the train and fell on her knees, saying "Thank you. Thank you for saving me."
A criminal complaint is now pending against the owner and manager of the brick kiln, and the men may face criminal charges carrying prison-time under the Bonded Labour Abolition Act and Child Labour Act.
IJM's Anu George Canjanathoppil commended the government officials who acted quickly to bring rescue to people in their district who needed it: "Their resolve is proof that a functioning justice system can protect the vulnerable from exploitation and abuse."
And for the 149 people who are now safe in their own villages, the government's resolve means their lives will never be the same.
*A pseudonym has been used for the protection of this IJM client.