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Tamil Nadu: Days after rescue, bonded labourers unsure of what lies ahead

Days later, those rescued from the factory have no real clue of what lies ahead. “We do not know if he (the factory owner) will come back for money again. We do not know what to do if there are threats,” said Packiaraj.

G Packiaraj, a 37-year-old daily wage worker, was labouring at the brick kiln factory he worked at on Thursday morning when officials raided the premises. He and his mother Malliga were taken out of the factory compound in government vehicles, along with several other workers.

“I didn’t realise what was happening. They said we were being rescued,” he said.

Packiaraj was one of 50 bonded labourers rescued by the district administration in Devangudi village in Thanjavur district.

“My father Ganesan worked there for over a decade to repay the loan of Rs 1 lakh he had taken from the brick kiln owner for my sister’s wedding. My father and mother lived and worked there to repay that. Their salary was Rs 500 if they made 1,000 bricks. Even though they worked for so long, I was still forced to work after father’s death saying our debt was not yet repaid fully,” Packiaraj told The Sunday Express.

His father and mother were allowed to come home only once in nine or 10 months.

“I used to go meet them at the factory once in two weeks or so. After I was forced to work there, I too had been coming home only once in two or three weeks,” he said. Unlike other families in the factory, however, Packiaraj was lucky to leave his wife and three daughters at home.

The local police have registered a case against the factory owner, Sekhar, who is reportedly absconding. The brick kiln factory that ran without a license for so many years may be sealed soon, according to an official in the Thanjavur district Labour Department.

V Veerasaamy, the Kumbakonam revenue divisional officer (RDO) who initiated the rescue operation on Thursday said they searched the premises based on a tip-off from volunteers of two NGOs working for bonded labourers, and found 19 families at the factory.

“They were living and working there for several years, some for 10 years and some for even 20 years… They lived in small make-shift temporary sheds made of plastic and tin sheets within the premises. They were not allowed to go out even after working hours, that lasted for almost a day. Children were not allowed to attend school… They lived a slave’s life inside the factory compound for few thousands or a lakh that they had borrowed,” Veerasaamy said.

“Those 50 people had no toilets but they openly defecated within that two-acre premises. They seem to have never imagined escaping, perhaps because they were unsure of a better life outside. Fear about the factory owner, who reportedly faces murder charges, too played a role. Even when we rescued them, they were afraid to come out. After inquiry on their life and violations involved in the factory, we dropped all of them at their native villages in government vehicles,” Veerasaamy said.

Days later, those rescued from the factory have no real clue of what lies ahead. “We do not know if he (the factory owner) will come back for money again. We do not know what to do if there are threats,” said Packiaraj.
Veerasaamy too has no clear answer. “We rescued them… They are in their native villages. What else we can do?” he said.

Sharon Jabez of the International Justice Mission (IJM), an NGO that works for the rights of bonded labourers, said that around 200 bonded labourers were rescued by government agencies across the state in 2019. Appreciating the government’s action, she said the prosecution of culprits needs to be enforced effectively too.

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