The recent rescue of bonded labourers from jewel making units in the heart of Chennai has thrown light on the penetration of bonded labour system, hitherto thought to be confined to rural areas, into the urban parts of the State. All the exploited workers are from northern States such as Bihar and West Bengal.
Shockingly, most of the exploiters are from the same States to which the bonded labourers belong. While woodcutting units and brick kilns are the notorious industries in the rural areas, pani poori and jewellery making units have attained notoriety for bonded labourers in cities. “Youngsters from such north Indian States are being brought into the city by paying advance money to their parents or relatives. Even though accommodation is provided, the victims were forced into hours of hard labour,” SM Santhosh, media relation manager of International Justice Mission (IJM), said.
From January 12 to September 11, the Revenue department and police, along with the NGO, have rescued 101 bonded labourers from the city, all of them from north Indian States.
They were rescued from pani poori making units, water treatment plants and jewellery making units, located in Choolai, Wall Tax Road and Koyambedu.
Of the five rescue operations conducted in the city, 60 bonded labourers were rescued from five jewellery making units in Wall Tax Road on September 6. Explaining the reason for the prevalence of bonded labour in urban pockets, Santhosh said that the north Indian workers face language barrier and they could not complain to others. “Also, they work for long hours even for meagre pay. For instance, bonded labourers rescued from the units in Wall Tax Road were working from 9 am to midnight.”
Apart from the pani poori and jewellery making units, there is a higher possibility of bonded labour system in the textile industry, food factories, including bakeries, and retail business houses.
Rehabilitation – a challenge
Usually, soon after the rescue of bonded labourers, the government would issue release certificate apart from one-time cash assistance. The government, along with the NGOs, also provide skill training as part of continuous rehabilitation programme.
Though the government departments, especially the Revenue department, have rehabilitated many of the bonded labourers belong in Tamil Nadu, they could not conduct a programme for bonded labourers who were sent to their respective States. “Revenue department officials would communicate the rescue to the respective State governments and request them to provide rehabilitation. However, the officials could not keep track of the rescued workers. There are chances of sending the rescued labourers again as bonded labourer to Tamil Nadu,” a source said.
Lack of coordination
As most of the rescued bonded labourers are under 18 years, the rescue and rehabilitation of bonded labourers require the involvement of Labour and Revenue departments, and police.
In cases where labourers from other States are involved, the process also includes the services of ‘one-stop crisis team’ from district legal services authority (DLSA). However, the lack of coordination between these departments affect the rescued bonded labourers.
During the September 6 rescue operation, police plunged into the action without proper intimation to the Revenue department.
This forced the 60 labourers to wait for long hours at the government home before property questioned by a Revenue official. “Even though these departments can conduct rescue operation, repatriation and legal assistance should be provided by the District Legal Services Authority,” I Jayanthi, senior civil judge/secretary, DLSA, Chennai, said.
She added that the boys could not go home for four days as the departments did not know the process of repatriation. “After the officials approached us, we arranged for their travel and repatriation.
There are certain rules to be followed while conducting rescue operation and sending the labourers home.” Meanwhile, an official from Labour department said FIRs were filed in cases where child labour is involved. “Public can contact us if they find child labour or bonded labour. We will take action based on the complaints,” the official added.
Lack of accountability
One of the major setbacks in curtailing bonded labour that exploits north Indians is the lack of a system to keep count of the workers migrating into the State and a mechanism to track them. “The number of migrant workers entering the State is high and we could not collect details of all them. The government should collect information about the workers and keep a database,” an official source said. The person added that middlemen bring the workers from north Indian States in large numbers and lack of proper monitoring system embolden them to sell the innocent workers into bonded labour system.