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41 labourers remain caged, 16 days after raid

Sources allege that despite visible signs of bonded labour, there is ‘stoic inaction’ on part of officials and the owner of the unit that had 12 child labourers is yet to be arrested

41 labourers remain caged, 16 days after raid

Illustration by Saai

CHENNAI: Sixteen days have gone past since the Tamil Nadu Labour Department officials had cracked down on a jewel making unit in Sowcarpet employing 12 child labourers and 41 adults allegedly forced into a bond. Though the officials rescued the child labourers, as many as 41 adults are still languishing in inhumane conditions, forced to work for more than 14 hours a day. Official apathy is reportedly so bad that no action is yet to be taken against the employer till date, sources said.

Sources privy to the case said that the police have failed to arrest the owner of the facility for engaging child labourers. On the other hand, the officials attached to the revenue department, who are the competent authority to conduct inquiry when it comes to the bonded labourers, have allegedly failed to follow the standard operating procedures (SOP) set for handling such incidents.

“Despite alerting them that there are elements of bonded labour in the incident, the officials did not react to the call till date,” said a source privy to the development and added that the officials are playing a “wait and watch” game. Violators are being given leeway to escape legal action and continue to exploit the vulnerable labourers, sources said.

The victims, all hailing from remote villages in West Bengal, have been working in the facility not less than 14 hours a day. They lived and worked under the same roof. “The place is worse than a prison cell. All the 53 were forced to sleep in a single hall. They had spent most of the day making jewels. During the marriage season and Akshaya Tritiya, the working hours would prolong and even go up to 18 hours a day,” said an official quoting a victim’s statement. The process of making and polishing the jewels involves hazardous chemicals and children below 18 years are not permitted to be employed here.

The officials raided the premises based on tip-off. The officials conducted a surprise raid on July 19 and rescued 12 boys, aged less than 18 years, and alerted the revenue officials to conduct enquiry regarding the adults after ascertaining that they were also bonded labourers. “They were lured with an advance amount of a few thousand rupees and promised good food. They were forced to work for long hours and were not allowed to step out of the facility,” said a source and added that they found them inside a locked room on the fourth floor of the building.

The revenue officials cited lack of funds as reason for not carrying out the inquiry at the facility, while the police are yet to arrest the owner of the facility. It is against the SOP that was drafted with an objective to carry out a coordinated operation by various departments to rescue victims of bonded labourers and help them to avail government benefits to escape the vicious cycle of the bonded labour system.

Shanmughasundaram J
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