CHENNAI, INDIA – Last week, 59 girls were rescued from slavery in a factory that markets itself in the country as a conscientious food supplier of high-quality, organic pickles.
The girls—13 to 25 years old—were forced to work 16-hour days in the unsanitary factory, exposed to dangerous chemicals and barely nourished by rice and water boiled with onions. At night, they crammed mats into a two tiny rooms; 40 girls slept in one space about the size of a small studio apartment in New York City.
Tricked and Trapped, A Thousand Miles From Home
The girls had been trapped in the abusive factory for several months. They told shocking stories of how they got there—most said they had been tricked by the same man offering a sightseeing trip down South for about $15. The girls were from impoverished families, and the opportunity had seemed too good to pass up.
The girls had been trapped in the abusive factory for several months. They told shocking stories of how they got there—most said they had been tricked by the same man offering a sightseeing trip down South for about $15.
But when the friends from various villages arrived at a factory more than a thousand miles away from their homes, it quickly became clear that this was not a trip. It was a horrible trap.
The girls were forced to start working as slaves right away. The factory produces "gherkins," cucumbers pickled in various ways. One of the varieties uses acetic acid—a pungent ingredient in household vinegar, but one that is corrosive and harmful in its concentrated form. The girls did not get to wear gloves when they pickled in acetic acid.
Their families had given the apparent trafficker money up front. But when he delivered the girls to the factory, the owner reportedly paid him thrice that amount for each girl. The girls said that the owner then demanded they repay him the cost he had paid the trafficker for them, calling it an "advance"—even though none of them saw a dime; it all went to the apparent trafficker. The girls were then paid less than a quarter a day—a mockery compounded by the fact that the factory owner started charging interest on the debt he claimed they owed him.
Miles from home, in a place where no one else even spoke their language, the girls had nowhere to turn for help.
Rescue and the Start of Restoration
IJM and Jan Jagriti Kendra (JJK), one of its partner organizations working in central India, discovered the pickle-making factory. While the organizations attempted to learn more about what was going on inside, one girl escaped the high-walled compound and was able to share more details about the abuse going on inside. The NGO team presented the slavery case to a variety of government officials—from both the girls' home state and the district where the factory is located. They worked together to plan a rescue operation for November 18, 2013.
One of the IJM staff members, who went on the operation to provide technical support, said she was "shocked to see the hazardous conditions that the girls were made to work and live under." She added that the official in charge, Sub-Collector Agay Yadav, "swiftly responded to ensure the girls were rescued immediately."
IJM social workers helped the girls to understand what was happening—that they were being rescued and not in any sort of trouble. Back at the government office, the girls started to open up about the exhausting work and the factory that they were never allowed to leave.
The girl who had managed to escape had travelled back with the rescue team—she wanted to make sure her friends got out safely. "Once she saw that each one of her friends was being rescued, her face lit up with a smile," said IJM's Blessy Baby, adding, "We were not able to understand each other because of the language barrier, so she thanked me with a giant hug."