CHENNAI: On a fine day in March, the wife of Balram (name changed), a labourer at one of the chambers in Pudukuppam in Tiruvallur district, fell so sick that she was not able to work. To compensate on her behalf, Balram, a native of Odisha, worked harder than he usually would.
However, the owner’s younger brother soon arrived and asked Balram why his wife was not working. He then went to the place where the sick woman was resting and forced her to work. When an aggrieved Balram intervened, he was slapped twice and taken to a nearby room. Behind its locked doors, the owner’s brother and a supervisor took turns to physically assault the labourer with a boot. With his face badly swollen, Balram had to be admitted in the Government Stanley Medical College and Hospital in Chennai for treatment. The incident was documented by the local field office of International Justice Mission (IJM), a global NGO, which fights forced labour and trafficking.
According to experts, migrant workers, especially those from other states, are extremely vulnerable to discriminatory treatment at the chambers. One significant impediment is the language barrier, which prevents them from approaching the government officials for grievance redress. “Despite several laws to protect them, the promise of minimum wages is not kept. Besides migrants have their freedom of movement and employment tightly restricted. On an average, working hours last for 14-16 every day,” said P V Prakash Rao of IJM.
The problem, according to P Stephen of the Integrated Rural Community Development Society, is that migrant labourers are not registered with local authorities.
However, the brick kiln owners disagree with attaching a negative connotation to their business. R Ramarao, president of Chennai, Tiruvallur district brick kiln owners association, said, “As it is, none of the chambers has fences and hence they are free to leave anytime. The truth is we have already suffered and will continue to suffer huge financial losses on account of workers running away without repaying the advances.”