CHENNAI, INDIA – In the last weeks of 2013, rescue finally came to families who had been forced to live and work as slaves for up to three years chopping trees. Children as young as 8 years old were forced to work alongside their parents, and one child said they were not only barred them from going to school, but beaten by the owner if they even asked.
The families said that the man who owned the wood-cutting operation—and controlled their entire lives—leased plots of land that they would clear, chopping and collecting wood that would be sold to local factories and small businesses as firewood for boilers. They moved from site to site frequently. Sometimes there was a shed where they could store their belongings, but they often slept outside in the same forests where they worked, with no defense from the elements, snakes or other wild animals. It took about a week of exhausting physical labor to fill one truck with the minimum load—about ten tons of wood.
After uncovering the abuse, IJM presented the case of slavery to a district official—he had never worked with IJM before and the team was not sure how quickly he would respond. Thankfully, the official mobilized a rescue team immediately.
One of the IJM aftercare managers who went to provide operational expertise and support to the rescued families said, "It was very painful to see the poor living conditions" of the slaves but added that it was "amazing" to see the official use his authority to bring freedom that same day.
Back at the government office, the head official facilitated an interview process to record each person's story and learn how they had been enslaved as forced laborers. Some of the adults shared how they had been desperate for ways to provide for their families. They said the owner offered them an advance payment and a job to pay it back—that initial advance was less than $20 in some cases, and they had been working to pay it back for two or three years.
As evening wore on, the official ordered dinner for all of the rescued slaves and staff, then rallied his officials to keep working into the night. Finally, the official gathered everyone together to distribute release certificates, legal documents that declare them free and cancel any outstanding "debt" that the owner may claim he is owed. Thirteen people, including a 60-year-old woman and four children, received these emancipation papers.
The families were taken home to their villages that same night, and they are now part of IJM's two-year aftercare program for survivors of slavery.