Tamil Nadu News

Tamil Nadu: Rescued bonded labourers face threats from ex-bosses

Since they are not issued release certificates and paid compensation, this 28 rescued bonded labour from Irula community live in uncertainty.

Published: 17th July 2019 06:56 PM  |   Last Updated: 17th July 2019 06:58 PM   |  A+A-

Crew Members

Rescued workers from dredger ‘Ibis’, along with district administration officials, in front of the Coast Guard office in Mangaluru on Sunday | Rajesh Shetty Ballalbagh

Express News Service

CHENNAI:  Twenty-eight bonded labourers from the Irular Scheduled Tribe community, are facing death threats from their former bosses, even after they were rescued by the government and non-governmental organizations from a wood-cutting unit in Kancheepuram on Wednesday last.

The rescued families, have neither received their bonded labour release certificate nor any financial compensation. Without job or money, the families are entrapped in uncertainty. They struggle even for food and other basic supplies. In addition to this, their former bosses who live near their settlement have been hounding them with death threats, they charged.

The labourers, after being picked up by officials from the Karuvelam (Prosopis juliflora) forest they were bonded at, were relocated back at Periyakarumbur, their village which is situated at a one hour distance from their former workplace. The thatched huts they live in does not have water or electricity supply as well.

Forty-two bonded labourers - 28 from Kancheepuram district and 14 from Vellore district, were rescued from two woodcutting units in two separate rescue operations on Wednesday. The woodcutting units, located at Konnerikupam in Kancheepuram and Paruvamedu in Ranipet, were owned by a father-in-law and son-in-law duo, according to Durai Raj, a member of Rescued Bonded Labour Association, who took part of the extraction.

While the labourers rescued from Vellore, were given their release certificates, the Kancheepuram Revenue Department has delayed their paperwork stating "insufficient circumstantial evidence". However, the rescued labourers argued that the officials have neglected them as they have been busy managing the multitude of visitors coming to Athivarathar temple - which President Ramnath Kovind visited few days ago.

"We have not been able to obtain evidence that these families were bonded in that place for long. We will issue release certificates only after we get evidence," said S Saravanan IAS, Sub Collector,
Kanchipuram, who carried out the rescue operation.

The bondage

The bonded labourers were trapped in horrendous living conditions at the wood-cutting unit, they said. Out of the 28 labourers from Kancheepuram, 10 were children. They had been working between two and 15 years to repay debts ranging from Rs 9,000 to Rs 25,000. While the oldest among them is 70-years-old, the youngest is only about four-weeks-old.

"I delivered the baby in the Karuvelam forest. My husband was denied permission to take me to the hospital as the tractor was coming to collect wood-load on that day," said Rani*, a woman in her early
twenties. While this is Rani's fifth baby, her oldest child is 8-years-old. Her new-born baby was sick and did not have medical help when Express visited her house in Periyakarumbur.

Furthermore, four out of the 10 children who rescued on Wednesday had fever and rashes and had not received medical help. Four more children had started going to school from Thursday onwards. "We want our children to go to school from now on. We do not have enough food to provide for them. We have no other skills other than wood-cutting," said Velamma* another rescued labourer.

Buvana* a 19-year-old girl had lost her mother in the wood-cutting unit last year and her father escaped the unit soon after. "The owner hit and abused my father badly. He disappeared one night and never came back. I have continued working in the unit to pay-back their debt," she said adding that she has been cutting wood with her parents since she was 10-years-old.

The children cut the thorns out of the branches and collect the wood we chop off, said Kasi, the oldest rescued labourer. He said that despite working from 6 am to 5 pm every day, a family of four people received only Rs 300 per week. "We get our wages on the day the tractor comes to take the load. Couples with children earned Rs 300-350 a week, other earned Rs 200-250," he said.

He further added that children went to school only on the days they came back to their homes in Periyakarumbur. However when Express asked them the last time they went to school before this, they said that it was during last Diwali, when they were allowed to take leave. "We worked even during Pongal," said Kasi. His wife, Madhu* added that all families had to live inside the forests under make-shift tents made from plastic or woven palm leaves.

The rescued bonded labourers are battling extreme uncertainty as wood-cutting is the only skill they have. "Nobody in the neighbourhood wants to give us work because we complained about the bondage and government rescued us. We have no money or savings to start-off. We are depending only on the compensation that will come with the release certificate," she said.

The rescued labourers are in immediate need of medical attention, financial compensation and relocation of residence, said SM Santhosh from International Justice Mission, who assisted RBLA in the rescue operation. "They need to be relocated far f om the former bosses and rehabilitated urgently," he said.

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