IJM Chennai Helps Rescue Malnourished, Mistreated Families From Slavery In A Rice Mill

The families lived in this tiny shed, attached to the owner's house.
The families lived in this tiny shed, attached to the owner's house.

CHENNAI, INDIA – Yesterday, eight people were set free from a life of slavery. The three adults had been enslaved in the rice mill for up to six years, and the four children and an infant had grown up there. Many were sick and malnourished, and the children's bloated bellies protruded from threadbare clothing.

Completely Controlled

The work in the rice mill was exhausting; the cycle sometimes started at 1 a.m. and lasted until 8 a.m. Other days they worked long hours under the hot sun. There was no day off. Meals were sporadic and barely enough to sustain the frenetic pace of work. They shared a tiny shed attached to the owner's home. There was no privacy, and only a crude cement wall with a single grated window protected them from the elements.

Their lives were completely controlled by the owner, who would not allow more than one person to leave the mill at a time. One man named Kumar shared how he had attempted to escape several times. But each time, he said, the owner tracked him down, brought him back to the mill and beat him. Kumar said he lost hearing in his right ear because of these repeated blows to the head. Kumar remembered when his mother was very ill and he pleaded to go see her: "I begged for permission to go," he said, but "the owner shouted at me telling that I can go later." But later was too late; his mother passed away the very next day.

A New Life

On May 29, 2013, IJM helped district government officials rescue Kumar and the others from the abusive rice mill. The adults and children went back to the government office, where they answered questions about life inside the mill. The official quickly determined that they had been trapped there as forced labor slaves, and he gave the three adults release certificates emancipating them and entitling them to government benefits.

When IJM started working in Chennai more than ten years ago, government officials were unfamiliar with the laws and the process to release individuals from forced labor slavery. It often took IJM multiple trips to carry out a single operation, and it was difficult to get release certificates issued within the same day. These certificates – legal emancipation documents – are critical to ensuring the rescued slaves remain safe from angry owners who have viewed the workers as literal property.

IJM Chennai Field Office Director Andy Griffiths remarked on how efficient and encouraging it was to assist with this particular operation. "From start to finish, the process was smooth and swift," he said, adding, "The entire process, from rescue to release certificate distribution, was completed in just four hours."

With these release certificates in hand, the families headed home. IJM helped them return to their village, where they were welcomed by relatives and the village leader. Now they are part of IJM's two-year aftercare program, and they will receive practical tools, trainings and one-on-one visits with an IJM social worker to help them rebuild a new life in freedom.