TAMIL NADU, INDIA – February 7, Tamil Nadu government officials and police carried out a rescue operation to free 22 boys—ages 15 to 17—being exploited at multiple urban jewelry factories after being controlled by an interstate trafficking ring.
Authorities believe the alleged traffickers had paid families in the northern state of West Bengal between 5,000 and 10,000 rupees ($60-120 USD) to send their sons for work in the city of Chennai, in the south. They promised the boys would be “apprentices” to learn the jewelry trade and get good food and accommodations.
Instead, these teen boys were forced to work 12 to 14 hours a day, trapped on-site at the factories, and had no access to health care. If they got sick, the owners gave medications themselves. The payment advances were used as false debts the boys were forced to repay through their labor. Some boys had been working for just a month; others had lived this way for years.
After discovering these conditions, one district official shared, “I am not able to come to terms with the situation in which these kids are working right now. We have to do something now.”
On Feb. 7, officials from the Labor Department, Revenue Department, and police invited IJM to assist the rescue operation as a knowledge partner advising on the provisions of the law.
Beautiful jewelry that destroyed lives
One IJM staff member observed, “They were housed in dingy, unventilated, unhygienic premises and made to work for long hours. The boys had to handle harmful chemicals as they cut jewelry into beautiful ornaments. The rooms they worked in had grill doors that was kept locked by the owner, who monitored their work all through the day. Sometimes their work hours extended through the night as well.”
He added, “It was surprising to see that jewels meant to beautify the body are the ones that destroy the lives of many young boys. Thanks to the government’s initiative, these young lives were saved from withering in the abusive workplaces.”
IJM staff were encouraged to see officials work collaboratively to bring the boys to safety and offer critical care within 48 hours of the rescue. A top official from the State Human Rights Commission (SHRC) personally visited the boys to check on their well-being and offer support. Visibly relaxed, many of the boys played together as they waited for officials to document their stories and provide paper and funds to mark their freedom.
Following the rescue, the local Child Welfare Committee (CWC) traced the boys’ families and helped parents travel back and forth to take the boys home. The government paid ticket costs as needed and even made their train reservations.
Police have filed initial reports against 10 employers accused of exploiting the children, which included charges under India’s anti-bonded labor law. Other workers were found at the factories but are not suspected to be in bonded labor.
IJM staff in Tamil Nadu will continue to support the government’s efforts to prosecute the case, and the team in West Bengal will support the boys’ aftercare journey and any follow-up research into this alleged trafficking ring.