In a rare victory against slavery, 14 Indian workers receive a payout after being rescued from borewell digging companies during the coronavirus lockdown in the southern part of the country, officials announced on Wednesday.
In their complaint to the police, the workers said when the lockdown began the employers abandoned them with no money.
“An agent brought me to work here. It is the first time I left my village in the hope of earning better,” Sandeep Sadhu Atla told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a phone interview from Madurai where he is waiting to be sent home.
“We worked endlessly and were only given some money off-and-on to buy essentials like soap or oil.”
After the rescue and police complaints, the owners of the companies agreed to pay overdue salaries to the workers.
Atla received 62,000 Indian rupees (US$820) and is expecting more compensation under a government scheme set up in 2016 to provide 100,000 rupees or more to people rescued from slavery to stop them falling back into debt bondage.
The workers were abandoned near a petrol pump on the outskirts of Madurai town when the lockdown began in March and rescued only after sending a video to their families about 2,000 kms (1,240 miles) away with landmarks to show their location.
“They sent video messages to their homes in Jharkhand (state),” said Sahaya Philomin Raj, advocate of human rights charity Institute of Development Education, Action and Studies.
“We were contacted and we managed to trace them with the help of the video clues and got someone to translate their story. We realised that they had been sold to the borewell rig owners.”
Meanwhile, four individual owners of small borewell digging companies are being investigated for late payment to workers and labour exploitation, according to T.G. Vinay, the administrative head of Madurai district in Tamil Nadu state.
Millions of migrant workers have faced the brunt of India’s stringent lockdown, with most losing jobs, wages and struggling to get back to their homes, some dying on the way.
Some workers trapped in forced labour have remained trapped in brick kilns, farms and rice mills where they have continue to work, according to anti-slavery campaigners.
India outlawed bonded labour four decades ago, but some employers still trap people from marginalised communities into working without pay in fields, brick kilns, rice mills, brothels or as domestic workers to pay off family debts.
India has eight million modern slaves, according to Australia-based Walk Free’s Global Slavery Index, and bonded labour is the most prevalent form of slavery in the country.
The India government says 300,000 people have been pulled out of slavery since 1976 and is aiming to free millions more.
But to date only 500 slavery survivors have received an initial payment of 20,000 rupees they are eligible for on their release and no one has received the full compensation, government data shows. (Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation)