Families Enslaved in Indian Brick Factory Were Exhausted, Malnourished When Rescued

The slaves fashioned tents from old plastic and dry leaves to keep their cooking pots and clothing dry; the parents and children slept out in the open.
The slaves fashioned tents from old plastic and dry leaves to keep their cooking pots and clothing dry; the parents and children slept out in the open.

CHENNAI, INDIA – Four families were rescued from a brick kiln where they were held as slaves and forced to work up to 14 hours a day. At night they slept out in the open; tents made from old plastic and dry leaves kept their cooking pots and clothing dry. Eleven children lived with their parents inside the brick kiln, and most were forced to work just like the adults. All of them said the owner of the factory had forced them to drop out of school.

What Slavery Looks Like

The families had been enslaved at the brick factory for more than three years. The days were hardly varied, marked by the monotony and exhaustion of hard labor that started at 5:00 or 6:00 a.m. The men used small carts to wheel in the mud. The women poured water into the mud to prepare the clay blocks. When the blocks of clay dried, the men and women worked together to hand-cut the clay into symmetrical bricks.

At this point, the work began for the children. With nimble hands and bare feet on the hot ground, boys and girls helped their parents turn the neatly cut bricks to make sure they dried evenly. Bad bricks would not count toward the daily quota, and the families were responsible for a certain number set by the brick factory owner.

As the bricks dried, the slaves would stack them in a crisscrossed pattern, leaving spaces between the bricks to ensure air could dry them properly. The last step was loading the bricks into a truck, so they could be carried off and sold for the owner's profit. The day ended after the sun set. Exhausted from a day of work under the hot Indian sun, the women would scrape together what little food they had been able to afford that week.

For what was often more than an 80-hour workweek, the owner gave the laborers less than $2 a week – barely enough to cover the cost of very basic food. Even though the market was less than two miles away, the slaves told how the owner only allowed one parent to go at a time, forcing the others to stay behind as collateral.

They could not leave for any other reason. As is common with forced labor slavery, many of the adults had taken a small "loan" from the brick factory owner years ago, which they would pay back through their wages. But the advance payment was simply a trap. One man said he tried to get another job where he could earn the money to repay the owner faster, but he said the owner simply refused the payment and said the man must "work it off" instead.

The brick factory owner himself is a local politician with strong connections in the village. The slaves felt powerless to speak out against him. They said they were beaten if they stopped working, and children were hit on the head if they "misbehaved."

The Rescue

When IJM Chennai discovered the 22 slaves living in fear and trapped in the brick factory, they quickly developed evidence they could share with local authorities. The families were not free to move find other work or travel. Children were forced to work. They received pennies for their work – far, far below the Indian minimum wage. It was clear they were trapped in a system of forced labor slavery.

On May 13, 2013, a district government official led the rescue operation. The head official is also a medical doctor, and she was immediately concerned with the health of the slaves she found in the brick factory. All seemed to be malnourished, and three were sent to the hospital. One girl had developed a severe rash, and her sister was diagnosed with leprosy. Thankfully they now have access to the treatment they need.

It was between 100 and 110 degrees Fahrenheit when the rescue team showed up, and one of the IJM social workers said, "It was disheartening to see both adults and children forced to work under the hot sun," adding that she was particularly heartbroken as she observed the children, who "could never look forward to anything but the dirt and sweat of the brick kiln because they were not allowed to go to school."

A New Future

IJM went with the families back to the government office, where they answered questions about their life inside the brick factory. The dirt and grit from the kiln clung to their bodies and clothes as the men, women and even children took turns telling about their life in slavery. The government official granted release certificates to 17 people, including six children. These legal documents emancipate them from the owner's control and entitle them to government benefits including monetary compensation.

The brick kiln owner was allegedly searching for the families back in their village, and the lead government official had received several phone calls during the day from men within the owner's political party. Since it was getting late by the time the release certificates were issued, IJM made arrangements for the family to stay in a safe place.

The families arrived at the safe place around midnight. IJM staff gave the children small stuffed animals to play with as they settled down, and all of the families woke up the next morning with a new future before them.

Now the families have returned home and are enrolled in IJM's two-year aftercare program. IJM will continue to support the families so they are safe and able to thrive in freedom.