At the end of an investigation that went on through the night until the crack of dawn on Tuesday, district officials established they were victims of bonded labour

Uttam was given only one day off in a week to venture out of the brick kiln. Even on that day somebody would accompany him.

Uttam was one of the 273 labourers from Odisha who were tricked into working as bonded labourers at two brick kilns in Chennai’s neighbouring Tiruvallur district. The labourers, who were allegedly working under inhuman conditions for a weekly payment of Rs. 300 to Rs. 400 per family, were rescued by revenue officials in an overnight raid on Monday.

At the end of an investigation that went on through the night until the crack of dawn on Tuesday, district officials established they were victims of bonded labour.

One hundred and eighty nine workers were handed ‘release certificates’ that identified them as bonded labourers, thereby enabling them for government rehabilitation packages. They were also given Rs. 1,000 each as initial rehabilitation payments and tickets for their journey to Bolanghir in Odisha.

Huddled beside Dhanbad Express at Chennai Central station on Tuesday evening and clinging to their meagre belongings, they recalled the difficult working conditions in the kilns, where even children were made to work.

Manoj from Kantabanji in Odisha, who worked as a driver at the kiln, got just three to four hours of sleep every day. “I was promised a salary of Rs. 7,000 a month, but got Rs. 15,000 for three months and nothing for the last two.”

While the labourers spoke in Odia, Annie Baptist, a volunteer with International Justice Mission (IJM), the NGO that assisted the district officials with the rescue, translated.

Sountharba, (45), said the family had taken a loan of Rs. 50,000 for her son’s wedding which they were unable to repay. When a ‘seth’ (middleman) offered to pay them an advance of Rs. 48,000 for four members in the family, they went to work in the kilns as they wanted to pay back the debt taken from other persons.

“My husband, son, daughter-in-law and I came here in January and were made to work six days a week from 4 a.m. to 10 p.m. with few breaks in between,” she said.

Twelve-year-old Dinesh, who spoke little Hindi, said he attended school between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. and was then made to work between 4 p.m. and 10 p.m. Baduku, another labourer, complained that if one of the members in the family was unwell, the wages would be accordingly cut.

After seven months of working close to 17 hours a day for six days a week at a place nearly 1,200 kilometers away from their home districts of Bolanghir, Naupada, Barghar and Nabranghpur districts in Odisha, the labourers on Tuesday night boarded the Dhanbad Express for a day-long journey home.

No criminal charges

Tiruvallur district collector K. Veera Raghava Rao said the labourers were rescued from the two kilns that were operating under the name ‘Eswari Brick Works’ in Thirukandalam village of Otthukottai taluk. Though the descriptions of the working conditions, provided by IJM, which assisted the district officials, sounded grave, the revenue department could only file penalties against the proprietors of the brick kiln under the Bonded Labour Abolition Act (BLA) of 1976, Mr. Rao said.

When it was pointed out that a press release from IJM noted that some labourers were beaten by the employers for demanding fair payment, the Collector said details would be collected of specific instances and if required, cases would be filed under IPC.

Tiruvallur district has close to 300 brick kilns that provide resources for the booming construction industry in Chennai. It is populated with a lot of labour-intensive small industries, including rice mills.

(With inputs from Asha Sridhar)

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