MUMBAI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Tens of thousands of slavery survivors in India who were confined, abused and exploited at work are denied compensation because officials are often ignorant of the law - with police sending 60 workers they rescued home empty-handed this week.
Police in the western state of Gujarat who freed 94 workers - including 12 children - from a chemical factory last week said they mistakenly thought compensation was only paid to ex-slaves who were working to pay off a debt - known as bonded laborers.
“They were forced to do labor, but they were not bonded. They were not clearing any debt,” said a senior police officer involved in the case who declined to be named as investigations were ongoing.
“Many of them still wanted to work. Sixty have gone back home and 12 children are in the childcare shelter. The rest are in Gujarat.”
Bonded labor is India’s most prevalent form of slavery, with about 18 million people working without pay in fields, brick kilns, rice mills, brothels or as domestic workers to repay debts to unscrupulous employers and moneylenders.
The practice was outlawed in 1976, and victims who are freed and officially identified as bonded laborers receive release certificates that entitle them to cash compensation, jobs and housing, which are critical to rebuilding their lives.
Millions of others are also subjected to forced labor, where they are deceived or coerced, and India’s top court has repeatedly ruled that the 1976 bonded labor law also applies to such victims - like those in the chemical factory.
The Gujarat police said they arrested three people and charged the factory owner with forced labor as the workers were beaten, denied leave, had to work when they were unwell and had their movement restricted.
The rescued workers said contractors had visited their villages in the northeastern states of Nagaland and Assam and eastern West Bengal and promised them “easy jobs”.
“It was nothing like what we were told. I worked there for four years, but was not allowed to go home even once,” said Austin Mach, 22, who worked 12-hour shifts packing pesticides at the factory, which made him dizzy and nauseous.
“I had to seek permission even to go to the market.”
Although thousands of victims of modern slavery are freed each year in India, the labor ministry said it only processed about 2,300 release certificates in the 12 months up to the end of March 2019.
“Remedial steps will be taken in the Gujarat case,” said Ajay Kumar Singh, a senior official with India’s labor ministry.
“If movement is curtailed, it comes under bonded labor.”
Police said they had the addresses of workers who had returned home and they would get compensation if directed by the government.
Labour rights campaigners say tens of thousands of modern-day slaves struggle to be recognized and get the benefits which they are legally entitled to, leaving them in poverty and at risk of being exploited again.
A case was brought to Gujarat High Court last month asking for release certificates to be issued to 150 bonded workers who were rescued from brick kilns and restaurants.
“Officials need to understand the intention of the law, which was that people get their basic fundamental right,” said Kandasamy Krishnan, head of the National Adivasi Solidarity Council, which works on labor rights issues.
Mach, who earned about 365 Indian rupees ($5) a day in the chemical factory, said he was scared of pressing charges against his employers and the contractor who got him the job.
“We don’t want any trouble. They are rich, we are poor,” he said by phone from Ahmedabad, Gujarat’s largest city.
“I do not know what I will do once I go back home. Some malls have come up there so maybe I will get a job there.”
Reporting by Roli Srivastava @Rolionaroll; Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org