CHENNAI: Twenty-seven bonded labourers were rescued from a rice mill in Red Hills on Thursday. The labourers were herded into a small shanty near the mill where they lived for five long years. Most of them were not even able to step outside because of fear.
“If they wanted to go outside they had to keep one family member in the owner’s custody as an assurance that they would return. And if they tried to escape they were caught and beaten brutally. So fearing for their lives, most didn’t try to flee the place,” said a district revenue official who was involved in the rescue operation. Most of the labourers were from villages in Kancheepuram, Thiruvallur and Chengalpet and belonged to scheduled castes and tribes. All of them were malnourished and lived in very poor conditions. “They were made to live like animals and subjected to physical abuse. They worked for over 16 hours every single day, and they only got a paltry sum of `100 each week. Most wouldn’t even get the sum as the mill owners would claim installments for loans they had taken,” said the official. Among all the rescued, 10 were children, nine men and the rest women. While a few children managed to attend a local school nearby, most of them had to end up working in the mills with their parents. “The parents couldn’t manage, so they had to put the children to work,” he said.
The rice mill owners Apphiappan and Ramamurthy have been taken into custody by the Sholavaram police. An FIR has been lodged against them and they have been charged under various counts, apart from the Bonded Labour Act.
Two months ago several families were rescued from a worm picking unit in Gummidipundi, but officials claim that despite several steps taken by the government, bonded labour continues to remain a statewide issue.
“Since it is disguised, it appears as though they are daily wage labourers. It becomes difficult to assess,” said Mathew Joji of International Justice Mission (IJM), an organisation which was also involved in the rescue mission.
The labourers were taken to the Thiruvallur sub-collector’s office and have been given a place to stay at a local community hall. “Since most do not have own houses we have offered them this place to stay. Once we find them an alternate place, they can leave. We will also be supervising their activities till they join mainstream work,” the revenue official added.