CHENNAI, INDIA – Last month, a desperate father escaped from a rice mill to get medical help for his 2-year-old son with a heart condition. Because a government official heard his story and took action, three families are now free from forced labor slavery.
Trapped in a Cycle of Fear
Gopi and his wife were forced to work grueling 15-hour days wading in rice paddies, harvesting the grain and processing it for market. They craved sleep and earned barely enough for food to keep them strong enough for work. They said the owner used verbal warnings and physical beatings to make them comply with his orders.
Gopi’s young son developed a heart condition, but the owner of the rice mill refused to let the family leave to get medical treatment. Gopi said none of the workers were allowed to leave, not even for medical emergencies or family funerals.
Gopi’s and two other families had been living like this for about three years. They had taken jobs at the mill along with a loan that they agreed to repay as they worked. But that loan was a trap set to make them forced labor slaves. They were trapped in this cycle of fear.
At the end of January 2015, Gopi knew he had to take a chance. Running away surely invited the owner’s anger, but staying inside the mill meant risking his son’s life.
A Desperate Father Finds Help
IJM learned about this rice mill at the end of 2014, and the team made contact with Gopi soon after he escaped. IJM advised Gopi to go to the district government office in his region and make a formal complaint.
On February 2, Gopi bravely went to the government office. It was a bold decision; Gopi was an impoverished man with a sick son, and there was no way to be sure the officials would side with his story over the powerful mill owner.
The official listened carefully to Gopi’s story. He acted immediately by assembling a team to go investigate the claim. This official has worked with IJM on over a dozen cases in three years, and he called for advice on how to proceed.
The two other families taken out of the rice mill answered questions and shared stories that matched Gopi’s. IJM sent a team to help support the survivors, making sure they had meals and understood everything that was happening. The next day the government official issued release certificates.
Gopi thanked the official who had listened to him, then said: “Now I need to get back to my home and start working for my family. I'm too happy.”
IJM helped the families return home to their villages that same evening. It was dark by the time they arrived, but relatives and curious neighbors gathered around to hear what had happened. It was a joyful homecoming.
The three families have joined IJM’s aftercare program for rescued slaves. An IJM social worker will be assigned to each family to assess specific needs and help them make a long-term plan to thrive in freedom.