CHENNAI, INDIA – It did not take long for Venkatesh and Subbulu to realize that they were trapped in slavery. But when they did, it was too late. Exasperated by his powerlessness to help his family, Venkatesh said, "'till I die I have to live here like a captive."
He and his wife had taken a small loan from the owner of a rice mill where their daughter worked. They planned pay it back by working in the mill. But the owner was not interested in the loan; he was interested in running his business on cheap labor – slave labor.
What Slavery Looks Like
Work began at 2 a.m. Venkatesh and Subbulu arose with the other forced labor slaves in the middle of the night, every night, to begin working in the fields. As the sun rose, they laid the rice paddy out to dry, preparing it to be processed in the machine room. The rice mill owner did not pay them the wages he had promised. He claimed that, despite their hours and hours of work every day, they all owed him money – but he would not let them leave to get other jobs that might have repaid the "loan" more quickly. They were not allowed to leave the mill; even during the rainy season, when it was impossible to work because there was nothing to harvest. They were given no food and had no way to buy any, so they ate discarded rice husks leftover at the mill.
The families were malnourished and constantly exhausted.
Venkatesh and Subbulu lived in a single room, about 10 feet by 12 feet, with fourteen other men, women and children. That is about the size of a storage closet. The couple helplessly watched as their daughter struggled to raise her three children inside the rice mill – ages 4, 7 and 9. They were not free to be the grandparents they wanted to be, and they feared what would happen to their grandchildren once they were old enough to work.
They heard that their older son and his wife were pregnant back in their village, and they asked the rice mill owner for special permission to make a visit to see their daughter-in-law in the final months of her pregnancy. The rice mill owner forbade it. When Venkatesh and Subbulu learned that the baby had been born, the owner threatened to murder one of their family members if they tried to leave the mill to visit their new grandchild.
"Our Joy Was Complete"
IJM started investigating the rice mill after Venkatesh and Subbulu had been there around four years. In April 2012, IJM presented clear evidence of forced labor slavery to the government authorities in the district and supported local officials in an operation to free the families from slavery in the rice mill.
"The laborers suffered much under this owner," said IJM Chennai Director of Aftercare Pranitha Timothy, adding that the rice mill owner had deceived them by offering the impoverished women and men like Subbulu and Venkatesh money up front – a "loan" that was really a trap and a "false promise." On their day of rescue, 14 people received legal documents from the government that cancelled the alleged "loan" and entitled each person to government monetary compensation.
With release certificates in hand, Venkatesh and Subbulu were ready to go home. When they arrived in their village, it was nighttime, but Subbulu immediately went to her son's home – the one she had so desperately wanted to visit while they were trapped in the mill. She wanted to meet her granddaughter. Subbulu beamed as she held her granddaughter, eagerly showing everyone what a beautiful girl she was.
Finally, Venkatesh and Subbulu were free to be the grandparents they want to be.
"We felt so happy," remembers Venkatesh, "Our joy was complete."