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Families’ send-off to slavery

The promise of 3 meals a day, free accommodation, and learning the trade forms a perfect trifecta for the bonded labour system to thrive. In part 2 of the series, families of boys rescued from the system lament over the dire economic conditions and acute lack of jobs that left them no choice but to send their wards to work in such hazardous conditions

Families’ send-off to slavery

Representative Image

CHENNAI: Several families in West Bengal’s backward districts have little or no awareness about their teenage sons being pushed into forced labour.

The family of Sofir Sheikh (17), one of the 22 boys rescued from a jewel-making unit in Chennai, knew that he had to work for 16-18 hours a day but they still sent him based on the assurance that he’d get 3 meals a day and learn a new trade.

For many families like his, this was the way out from their poverty-stricken homes. As Sofir toiled in a unit in Elephant Gate, Chennai, nearly 1,700 km away from his home in Bhandargacha, his parents Farhina Bibi and Abu Baker Sheikh, who lost his job in a dhaba during the pandemic, knew the work was hard.

Dire straits

“I knew he was working for nearly 16 hours a day and it was hard on him. But I comforted myself saying that he was safe and his future will be secured once he learns the art of making jewels,” said his father.

It was through word of mouth that he came to know that a person in a neighbouring village was running a jewel making unit in Chennai and was employing young boys.

“I approached him to get a job for Sofir. He stopped going to school after the pandemic and I lost my job too. I had no other choice but to send my son for work,” he averred.

“We were told that they would give food and free accommodation, and teach them to make gold jewellery. And that, after a year or two, he’d start earning,” added Farhina.

It has been 7 months since he returned home after being rescued from the unit that falls under the hazardous industry category in which employing persons below 18 years is prohibited.

The boy is now enrolled in the West Bengal government’s skill development programme for survivors of the child bonded labour system. “I worked in the unit for two months.

Work starts at 6 am and continues till 11 am. After a break for an hour, it will resume from 12 noon and extend till 2 am to 4 am (the next day). It was very hard, but I did not regret it because of my family situation,” recalled the boy, a Class 8 dropout.

On being rescued, he received Rs 30,000 and release certificate as part of the Central Sector Scheme’s rehabilitation programme.

One of the rescued bonded labourers with his family in West Bengal

Sofir’s friend Samin Mondal shares a similar story. “I worked there for nearly 16 months. Ever since I came back home, I’ve remained unemployed. I don’t know what we’re supposed to do here without any work,” he lamented.

Hailing from a family in Madhavpur in Basarat district, the 17-year-old youth wished to return to Chennai for work to support his family and take up the job of jewel making in the future.

‘Rs 3,000/month salary’

The situation is worse for Charanjit Mandal, a native of Maipit in South 24 Parganas district.

He was freed from a unit in Walltax Road on September 6, 2019. “I did not receive any financial aid. I am at home and unable to get a job since I returned home a few years ago,” Mondal, who is now 19. He was one of the 61 boys aged between 10 and 17 years rescued from five units.

Unlike Sofir and Samin, he hated work in the unit. “It was hectic. I was paid a monthly wage of Rs 3,000 for working for more than 12-13 hours a day,” he said. “Work began at 9 am and continued till late in the day.”

Being the eldest child in a family of five, Charanjit is worried that he would be unable to support his father Kinkar Mandal, who works as a mason in Kerala.

The invisible link that connects these families is the lack of awareness of their children being forced into bonded labour, exploitation by way of wage theft and long working hours in hazardous environments that could have serious health issues. Poverty, unemployment and lack of education seems to be the driving forces.

A number of village elders see the jewel making industry

A number of village elders see the jewel making industry as a launch-pad for the young boys where they get “free food and accommodation” while they learn to make jewels. This means a “guaranteed job” that helps to settle their debts and bail out the families from poverty.

The next meal is the only thing that matters the most, they said.

Stop re-bondage

Civil society organisations and activists opined that the West Bengal government has now acknowledged the prevalence of trafficking of children for forced labour.

WB’s labour department recently organised a programme on August 22 to celebrate World Day Against Child Labour and enrolled a group of survivors for a skill development programme.

Senior officials had also interacted with the survivors and their family members. The boys spoke about their lives in the units, the conditions that led them into becoming bonded labourers, their ordeal there, and the present living condition of their families during the programme.

“It’s a welcome move, but the government should step up its efforts and work with its counterparts in the receiving State (TN) to break the links of the network of trafficking the boys for work,” said an activist.

Natharsha Malim, State coordinator, TN, Bachpan Bachao Andolan, and other members of civil organisations and activists in Tamil Nadu concurred, and added:

“Meaningful rehabilitation to ensure social security to the victims and their families is the only way to stop re-bondage. But this is not happening as there is a wide gap in the knowledge of the bonded labour system among the officials concerned. This is undoing efforts to free the young boys from modern slavery.”

Hundreds of boys like Sofir are still caught in the clutches of bonded labour in the units in Chennai. However, they continue to toil day and night without knowing anything about the life behind the four walls of the units.

The State Labour Minister CV Ganesan has directed the officials to initiate a crack-down on the bonded labour system, which was prohibited following enactment of the Bonded Labour (Abolition) Act in 1976.

“If committed officials act promptly without political interference, the bonded labour system can be eradicated. The reality is in stark contrast to what officials and politicians speak,” said a source in the labour department.

“There is no support from higher authorities to intensify the raids in industries that are prone for child and bonded labour systems.”

Official response

Additional secretary of WB’s labour department, Shaon Sen, told DT Next that the government cannot stop boys aged above 18 years from going for work.

They take up the jobs when it comes with a package of “good food, place to stay and learning craft” of making gold jewels. “However, these offers come with a rider as the employers inform the boys that they would not be paid during the training period,” she said.

“Several boys unwilling to go back to school from Medinipur and surrounding areas are going for work in these units.”

The department has been making efforts to help the boys (migrant labourers) held captive at the place of work without any wages, Sen added. “We’ve been creating awareness among them to ensure control and safe passage to receiving states and to protect their rights.

We’re conducting counselling for boys and also facilitating enrollment in vocational training programmes based on their interest and skills,” she said.

On the rescue of 61 boys from jewel making units from Chennai in 2019, Sen added that the labour department handed them over to the Child Welfare Committee.

Since many were unwilling to go back to school, the State government held psychological and career counselling to enable them to enrol in several skill development/upskilling programmes.

“We recently held a programme for survivors. It’s a long and continuous process to ensure safe migration,” she stated.

‘Develop heat map to study trafficking pattern’

Law enforcing agencies had failed to extend non-financial rehabilitation measures under various government schemes to the victims and their families to improve their socio-economic condition, said Natharsha Malim, State coordinator, TN, Bachpan Bachao Andolan, who was involved in the rescue of over 100 child bonded labourers from jewel making and bag stitching units in Chennai in the last one year.

He stressed on developing a heat map to study the pattern of trafficking and factors forcing the boys into modern slavery to have an effective intervention programme.

“With technology and available human resources, the government can identify the hotspots of districts from where more boys are lured into bonded labour and sectors that employ boys in huge numbers.

Then, we can design programmes to address the issues to counter the bonded labour system. But the lack of understanding among the officials on the egregious impact on the young boys is a cause of concern,” opined Malim.

(Series concludes)

Shanmugha Sundaram J
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