Businesses helping slavery survivors in India seek ways to offset COVID-19 effects


A trafficking survivor, Bhimavva Chalwadi, the supervisor of a laundry in Goa has been looking for new clients since businesses started reopening as India gradually exited from an 11-week COVID-19 total lockdown.

Hotels were among her biggest clients, but with India’s tourist haven still waiting for business to pick up, there is very little work for Chalwadi and her co-workers who are also all survivors of human trafficking.

“The laundry had never closed before, not even on a Sunday,” said Chalwadi, who was “dedicated” to a temple as part of a banned custom that saw girls led into a life of prostitution and slavery in the name of serving Hindu gods.

“Now we do laundry for a COVID care centre one day and are closed for the next three as there are no other orders. Our earnings have dropped and we spend every waking hour trying to think of how to get new clients.”

The 14-year-old laundry was set up as social enterprise, one of many businesses with a mission to help society in India by providing economic opportunities for survivors of trafficking.

About 2,400 cases of human trafficking were reported in India in 2018, with nearly half of the victims aged under 18, according to the latest available government crime data.

But like many businesses the laundry has been hit by the multiple lockdowns as India’s coronavirus cases crossed two million this month.

India’s lockdown has left millions jobless and crippled businesses, including start-ups and social enterprises that have pioneered solutions aimed at improving services from health, education and housing, to providing sustainable livelihoods.

Providing work and financial security is seen as a crucial link in the rehabilitation of trafficking survivors.

Thousands of miles from Chalwadi in the northeastern state of Meghalaya, Ella Sangma has spent her lockdown days weaving traditional textiles at her home.

A weaver with the Impulse Social Enterprises, a company that sells clothes, bags, shoes and home furnishings, Sangma has kept her job and income during the pandemic.

Trafficked as a child, Sangma is a poster girl for the business which has helped her become financially independent.

Traditionally, rescued survivors have been put up in government and charity-run hostels and given vocational training in skills like embroidery and basket weaving but most have been unable to convert this into a sustainable livelihood.

But over the years, a few social enterprises have bucked the trend and provided survivors with a steady job and income, according to anti-trafficking campaigners.

Entrepreneurs said the “culture of daan (charity)” in India continues unchanged, with people “feeling sorry” for survivors and donating but not spending on quality products produced by them or supporting their businesses.

Salaries have been a concern lately for Chalwadi, who after her rescue two decades ago is now president of the Goa Survivors Association.

While the laundry shop paid all its employees through the lockdown, the prospects of salary cuts across businesses are looking more likely.

“The struggle for survival has become tougher for both the employees and the business. We don’t need donations but work orders to survive,” Chalwadi said. (source: Thomson Reuters Foundation)