In an exceptional case in Bengaluru, nine persons rescued on Tuesday from bonded labour from a borewell unit in Sahakara Nagar did not have to wait for months and years to get the wages they were owed from the owners. Eight of the rescued labourers were paid a cumulative sum of Rs 9,61,560 by the employers through individual cheques. One person had taken a larger advance from the offending employer, and was paid a nominal undisclosed amount in back wages in cash.
The rescue was facilitated by Madhya Pradesh based NGO Jan Sahas, and International Justice Mission (IJM), a global non-governmental organisation focused on human rights, law and law enforcement. IJM India works with the central and state governments to tackle two forms of human trafficking â€“ bonded labour and sex trafficking of minors. Jan Sahas, which is a partner organisation of IJM, found out about the bonded labourers when the relatives of the one of them called up their helpline and intimated them.
What makes this case exceptional is the large amount given as back wages by the employer, which is critical as the survivors wait for government rehabilitation funds. Under the Central Sector Scheme for Rehabilitation of Bonded Labourers, released bonded labourers are eligible to receive full rehabilitation upon the conviction of offender. However, cases can drag on in Indian courts for years. The rescue was also a joint effort between district administration, Madhya Pradesh police and Bengaluru police.
When TNM spoke to Wahid, Communications officer for Jan Sahas, on Thursday afternoon, he and the rescued persons were at the collector's office in Bengaluru getting the Rescue Certificates (RC) for the former labourers. The RC allows those rescued from bonded labour to be eligible for rehabilitation benefits.
The labourersâ€™ condition
From the nine labourers, seven are from Madhya Pradesh, and one each is from Chhattisgarh and West Bengal. They had been living and working in inhuman conditions at Ganga Borewells at Sahakara Nagar in Bengaluru for over a year. Unable to understand Kannada and at the mercy of the manager at the workplace, the workers had no way out.
â€śThey were promised wages of Rs 10,000 per month. But they were paid almost nothing; only a few hundred rupees now and then for daily expenses. They worked for 15 hours a day from 5 am to 9 pm. They had to just boil some rice near the truck near their workplace and only got a certain quantity, nothing more than that. After work, they would have to sleep inside the truck or under it,â€ť Wahid told TNM. There were times when they were slapped and physically assaulted by the manager as well.
Further, the employer went a step ahead and created fake entries in the accounts of having paid the workers, when in reality they did not get a single penny in wages except a nominal sum for buying toiletries and such things, Wahid added.
How the case came to light
While the workers had a basic phone, they were unable to contact local police because they did not understand Kannada, Wahid said. â€śAll of them are from disadvantaged tribal communities. So even if they contacted their relatives back home, the relatives did not know or did not have access to law enforcement or people who could help these people in Karnataka,â€ť he added.
Finally, it was a relative of a labourer in Madhya Pradesh who came to know about Jan Sahasâ€™ helpline number, and called them in the second week of January 2019. The next week, Jan Sahas filed an application with the local SP in Madhya Pradesh. Things moved steadily and about three weeks later, the police from the two states, along with Jan Sahas, carried out the rescue.
Why remuneration should be accompanied by rehabilitation
While itâ€™s commendable that these nine people did not have to wait for too long for get the wages they were due, Shantanu Dutta, director, of Thought Leadership Initiatives at IJM, stated that this must be accompanied by proper rehabilitation including skills and vocational training so that such persons do not end up in a vulnerable situation again.
â€śThis is one of the largest sums that we have secured for persons who have been rescued by IJM so far,â€ť Shantanu said. â€śBut giving them money is not enough. They need to be trained in how to use this money well, how to run a small shop or business so that they are able to truly sustain themselves and become financially stable in the long run.â€ť
That being said, it is still difficult for rescued bonded labourers to even get their Rescue Certificates; and compensation and back wages wages are also a long shot.
For instance, out of the 4122 persons rescued from bondage by seven NGOs across Bihar, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Odisha, Telangana, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Delhi and Uttar Pradesh from May 2016 to May 2018, only 2252 refceived their RCs under the new Bonded Labour (BL) Rehabilitation Scheme, out of which only 1110 received initial rehabilitation cash assistance of Rs 20,000.
On January 17, 2017, MoLE announced that the initial rehabilitation, increased to Rs 20,000 from Rs 5,000, would be given to those rescued immediately regardless of conviction proceedings. However, this was not followed. In Karnataka for instance, while 228 RCs were issued since January 17, 2017, 212 of those rescued did not get the sum of Rs 20,000. Survivors continue to wait to get their cash assistance in a number of states across India owing to the continued linkage to conviction of employers and roadblocks related to disbursement of funds. But Karnataka officials are especially is notorious for brushing aside rescued bonded labourers, say experts. Those rescued are sometimes not even issued RCs. Officials repatriate the rescued back to their home states so that they do not have to register a case and acknowledge that the state has a trafficking problem.
However, Shantanu believes that things are changing, thanks to increased awareness among district officials and workers also asserting their rights more now.