15 bonded labourers, including children, rescued from Red Hills

Five years ago, Vallima and her husband Sankar, natives of Acharapakkam in Tiruvallur district, went to work at a rice mill in Red Hills, hoping to earn more money. But what followed was a nightmare.

“We were earning Rs. 300 a day as daily wage labourers back home. We were promised better facilities at the rice mill. But when we came here, we were made to work for more than 10 hours a day, steaming and drying paddy and packing 50 sacks daily. The wages were only Rs. 50 a day,” Vallima said.

The owners did not give them any leave or even provide money for her children’s medical expense, she added.

Vallima was one of 15 people belonging to three families, rescued on Friday by a team headed by the Ambattur revenue divisional officer following a tip off from a human rights organisation, International Justice Mission (IJF).

The labourers were rescued from two mills in Vellanur near Avadi and Red Hills.

Over the last two days, a team of officials from Ambattur taluk have rescued 36 persons, including children from from bonded labour in several rice mills in Tiruvallur district, which is a hub of mills and brick kilns. Last month, about 30 persons were rescued in Ponneri, Tiruvallur and Tiruttani areas.

The practice of bonded labour, where a person’s labour is demanded as means to repay a debt or a loan, is still prevalent in parts of the district, which is a hub of rice mills and brick kilns. The district has about 300 rice mills.

Tulasi and Saminathan who were bonded labourers for four years found their means of escape at a temple festival in Mamallapuram a few months ago, when they met a member of IJF. Tulasi said that her family of five worked for long hours at a rice mill in Vellanur near Avadi. The wage was fixed at Rs. 20 for each sack of paddy.

“Our family, including three children, was given only Rs. 1,000 once in ten days or more. My children could not continue schooling. When I borrowed Rs.10,000 for my husband’s surgery, our wages were cut considerably. We were not allowed to go home. The owner often used to threaten us,” she said.

On Thursday, 21 others were rescued from another rice mill in Red Hills based on information from another NGO, Adivasi Solidarity Council. M.K. Shanmugam, Ambattur revenue divisional officer, said, the team comprising the Ambattur tahsildar visited the rice mills and conducted enquiries based on the information provided. by the NGO. “We found the labourers were not paid the minimum wage of Rs. 138. Their movement and freedom were largely restricted. We have rescued them and provided them with an immediate cash amount of Rs. 1,000. Once they are given photo identity cards, their respective revenue divisional officers will take over their rehabilitation.”

The labourers will then be provided with an amount of Rs. 19,000 and measures will be taken to rehabilitate them, he added.

Alice Sukanya of director of case studies, IJM, said many of the labourers belonged to the Irula tribal community. Though the number of such labourers is coming down, the practice continues to exist, she said.

However, members of the Red Hills Paddy and Rice Wholesale Merchants Association denied such practices and said the rice mills were facing a severe labour shortage. Sourcing workers from other places could not be avoided, they said.

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