CHENNAI, INDIA – More than three hundred people are waking up today in freedom. This time last week they were up before sunrise making bricks that would be sold for another’s profit.
In what can best be described as a dramatic shift against slavery, the Tamil Nadu state government rescued 333 forced labor slaves from a brick factory last week. This is the second-largest rescue operation IJM has ever assisted.
“I would say that this has been one of the most encouraging rescues ever. Not only was it a large and successful operation, but one where IJM’s intervention was minimal. We had engaged with the [government officials] previously, and some of the police officials had been part of our training programs, but the rescue itself was completely theirs,” says Alice Suganya, IJM Director of Casework.
Life in Slavery
Over three hundred people were forced to work inside the brick factory. They lived in tiny, thatched-roof huts. Each couple was responsible to make 2,000 bricks a week; children as young as 12 worked alongside their parents to help meet this enormous quota.
“I had to witness my own daughter work. I was helpless because I was injured,” Lokimi told the IJM team. The young mother shared how her leg had been crushed when a pile of bricks toppled onto her. After ten days of refusing any kind of medical treatment, someone came to the factory to apply a bandage. Lokimi had to get back to work the next day.
The families are migrant workers from the central-eastern state of Odisha, one of the poorest in India. They said that they had been offered advance payments to incentivize the move south to do this manual labor.
India has the highest number of forced or “bonded laborer” slaves in any country today—between 10.7-12.7 million (according to Siddarth Kara, a leading scholar on modern-day slavery).
Forced labor or debt bondage is a common form of modern-day slavery, and this case illustrates how it works. A family will take an advance payment intending to repay that money through their wages earned over time. But the owner tacks on exorbitant interest, pays the workers far below a fair wage and won’t let them leave to work elsewhere. The workers—typically very poor, from a lower caste, and illiterate—are trapped. They have become enslaved to the owner.
In this case, the families were hundreds of miles away from home, in a state where they did not speak the local language, and unsure how or who to go to for help. Each slave received a pitiful $ 1-3 amount per week, barely enough to buy rice to feed a family.
How Rescue Happened
Freedom finally came to all 333 people thanks to one man’s desperate call for help. The man found a phone number for a local government office and called on Wednesday, February 11. He shared his dire plight but was unable to explain exactly where they were located.
The head of that district, Rahul Nadh, mobilized police to track the call and go with his team to investigate the location. It turned out that the caller was inside a brick factory that was operating without a license.
Hundreds of people inside were just as desperate to get out. The government team called IJM’s Alice Suganya from inside the brick factory.
“We knew we needed to move quickly to get there and support the families, as the collector did not have anyone to start the interviews in Oriya language [the language the families speak in their home state of Odisha],” explains Alice, who has worked with IJM since 2004 and partnered with government officials on dozens of rescue operations.
Alice and several staff from IJM met the families at the government office. She commended the state officials: “It was heartening to see the confidence and expertise with which the district administration carried out the rescue. They took complete responsibility for the food, accommodation and transportation of the [rescued families]. They knew exactly what to do and worked with incredible passion.”
The Stories That Set Them Free
The government officials organized the 105 families into groups and methodically interviewed everyone. IJM assisted with the interviews, helping to translate so the survivors could tell their stories.
The survivors shared how the owner had harassed and beat them. One girl—who didn’t know her age—said her 25-year-old brother was missing. Others shared about a young woman who had died from jaundice and a lack of medical treatment.
They had been working in this factory since December, but many said they had been working for this owner for the past three years. He would simply transport his slaves from factory to factory throughout the state of Tamil Nadu.
The interviews lasted until 3:30 in the morning.
The officials reviewed their documentation and determined that 258 people should receive release certificates—the legal documents that cancel any debts owed against that initial loan and declare the person free.
The information collected during the operation will be used as evidence in a complaint against the brick factory owner. Police have issued an arrest warrant, and his factory has been ordered closed.
There is another case pending against the owner according to police officials—and his 15 tractors have been seized as police investigate this other business. IJM will help the government prosecutor frame charges and build a case against this apparent slave owner.
Game-Changer in the Fight to End Slavery
All three of these massive operations were at brick factories in the same district of Tamil Nadu, and the forced labor slaves had been trafficked from the state of Odisha. These patterns reveal a network of trafficking that will continue as long as business owners in South India do not fear the law.
“This rescue operation is a game-changer,” explains Saju Mathew, IJM Vice President of Operations for South Asia. “When we started working a decade ago, officials either hadn’t heard of bonded labor or denied that it existed in their state. A large-scale operation like this would have been unimaginable.”
This February operation is not an anomaly; it’s yet another sign of a serious commitment by the state to stop forced labor slavery. In the last quarter alone, the Tamil Nadu state government has rescued over 130 bonded laborers from different industries across different districts.