CHENNAI: Bonded labourers who managed to escape the shackles and began life afresh in the State now fear if they will be forced to return to the horridly low-paying exploitative jobs. A fear that would no doubt go overlooked among the lockdown’s umpteen collateral damages.
After rescue, these labourers often took up daily-wage works owing to limited skills. Now, with the lockdown crippling the livelihood of unorganised sector workers, many have no option but to borrow money to keep body and soul together.
When they will get to work next, how much more they will have to borrow, and how to repay the loans, are the questions that stare at these labourers, along with images of some employers who are waiting for a chance to ‘bond’ them.
Farmhand Amudha and her family of six live in a small hamlet near Acharapakkam in Kancheepuram district. They had to start from scratch after they were rescued from bonded labour at a wood-cutting unit five years ago. With no income since the Covid-19 pandemic brought the country to a halt in March, Amudha has almost used up her savings and fears if she will have to borrow money to keep feeding her family.
“It was loans that pushed us into bonded labour many years ago,” she told Express. The family has been running from pillar to post to receive some relief materials. “Most of our neighbours have begun to borrow money from rich farmers here. We are not ready to go down that road again,” Amudha’s husband Sankar said.
In the 2011 census, India identified at least 1,35,000 bonded labourers. On the other hand, Australian charity organisation Walk Free Foundation estimated 80 lakh bonded workforce in India, in its 2018 Global Slavery Index. At least two Odia men were grievously injured by their employer and his associates at the brick kiln in Thiruvallur district two weeks ago. With jobs dwindling and income tapering, the unorganised workforce has become exceedingly vulnerable to exploitation.
Selvi, a single mother of two, was born into bonded labour at a rice mill. She was among the hundreds rescued in early 2000s by the then government. Now she lives with her kids and ailing parents at JJ Nagar, an Irular settlement near Palavakkam in Thiruvallur district.
“After being rescued, I did domestic work at marriage halls for a living. With all the marriage halls shut now, I had to borrow small amounts like Rs 2,000 or Rs 1,000 from people around. Taking advantage of the situation, loan sharks have also begun to create a fuss in the neighbourhood. I am scared that we may have to take up offers even when exploitative employers offer us jobs,” she says.
Durai Raj, a grass-root worker from the Rescued Bonded Labour Association, says that ignorance and poverty are the two things that often lead to bonded labour. “Ignorance can be tackled by spreading awareness. However, fighting poverty is an unfair battle,” he told Express.
“The only way to prevent people from slipping into bonded labour is by ensuring that they are fed during the lockdown. The government should identify pockets where socially weaker communities stay and distribute relief to them. The authorities should also ensure that all kids from these areas enrol in schools.
According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), forced labour can be understood as work that is performed involuntarily and under the menace of any penalty. It refers to situations in which persons are coerced to work through the use of violence or intimidation, or by more subtle means such as manipulated debt, retention of identity papers or threats of denunciation to immigration authorities
bonded labourers in India were identified by Global Slavery Index-2018 put together by Australian organisation Walk Free Foundation. However, In the 2011 census, India identified at least 1,35,000 bonded labourers.