Indian ex-slaves unite to inform unaware survivors about coronavirus

CHENNAI, India, March 26 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - S lavery survivors in India are using WhatsApp groups to raise awareness about coronavirus among their peers in villages where many former bonded labourers are unaware of the pandemic.

Survivor networks across several states are messaging their members with voice notes and videos about handwashing, social distancing, and the implications of India’s three-week lockdown.

India has reported 649 cases and 13 deaths - small numbers compared with those in China, Italy and Spain - but health experts say that the world’s second most populous country faces a tidal wave of infections if tough steps are not soon taken.

“Many of our members are illiterate and have no clue about the epidemic that the entire world is talking about,” Durai Raj, coordinator for a rescued bonded labourers association in southern Tamil Nadu state, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“Before the lockdown we met them individually, giving them two bottles of soap and showing them how to wash hands properly,” Raj added. “Now we are in touch with them on the phone, allaying fears and answering questions.”

India outlawed bonded labour four decades ago but the practice continues, with India identifying more than 135,000 bonded workers in its last census in 2011 and vowing to rescue and rehabilitate more than 10 million of these workers by 2030.

Millions of bonded labourers work in India in fields, brick kilns and rice mills to pay off loans, and remain isolated from society even after being rescued, anti-slavery campaigners say.

The WhatsApp groups for survivors have been flooded with questions such as asking why there is no cure for the virus and whether using turmeric would prove effective as a disinfectant.

“Our volunteers are constantly on the phone with rescued workers, advising, educating and guiding them,” said Saroj Barik, programme manager with charity Aide et Action, that supports the Migrant Bonded Labour Forum in Odisha state.

"They are concerned about daily survival and the uncertain future they are staring at." (Reporting by Anuradha Nagaraj @AnuraNagaraj; Editing by Kieran Guilbert. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit