In India, Former Slaves become Leaders

CHENNAI, INDIA – Ramesh addressed a small room full of children, women and men, gathered from many villages throughout South India. His audience shared a common story: Once victims of forced labor slavery, the families were learning how to live in freedom again. Ramesh spoke from experience: “After release, life won’t be easy – you will face lots of difficulties, but you have to make sure you work hard.”

Slavery to Freedom

Ramesh and his wife were once forced labor slaves, trapped in a rice mill for more than six years. Their work was brutal and exhausting. The process of boiling, drying and processing rice took three days per cycle – including shifts beginning before dawn, throughout the day and into the night. They received about sixty cents per cycle – barely enough to eat.

IJM and local police rescued Ramesh and his family from the brutal rice mill in an operation last year, but they had no place to go in their newfound freedom. IJM Chennai Director of Aftercare explains the common struggle: “Freedom is an adjustment to many of the laborers we serve. They must be reminded of their rights as citizens of India, because for so long they have been treated as property and robbed of the most basic rights.”

IJM Chennai has a robust two-year aftercare program for families rescued from forced labor, that includes individual visits to each client’s home and monthly meetings for families living in close proximity. IJM social workers help clients find sustainable jobs and schooling opportunities for children.

A New Home

After Ramesh was released, IJM social workers encouraged and equipped him to use the government as a resource and keep lobbying for the benefits his family deserved. Ramesh decided to take his family to a new village, where the government had allocated small land grants, available to former victims of forced labor. At first, the local leader refused to give Ramesh the land, until he brought copies of their Release Certificates – official documents they had received when they were freed from the rice mill. Seven other families followed Ramesh’s persistent example and received land plots nearby. Ramesh didn’t stop there. He continued to petition the government, and, as a result of his advocacy, his village now has electricity, street lamps, a paved road and running water.

IJM challenges clients like Ramesh to speak openly about the trap of forced labor slavery with their neighbors, extended families and friends – a grassroots effort to educate those who are most at-risk of trafficking.

New Leaders – Building New Lives

“We’ve experienced bonded labor because no one told us. Now that we are free, we want to warn people about it.”

This year, IJM hosted an inaugural Community Leadership Training, a three-day event for former forced laborers, who, like Ramesh, have been elected as leaders by their community. These women and men traveled to Chennai with their families to further develop leadership skills that will enable them to advocate the government, utilize the legal system and share their stories with others who are at risk for labor trafficking.

Ramesh has thrived in IJM’s aftercare program, and he is eager to share his story as a way of educating others about the snares that may lead to slavery. When he stood up to speak to his peers at the Community Leadership Training, he encouraged them to use the tools IJM provides, but do the hard work themselves.

Another man shared his initial struggle to find a job, as he lacked technical skills apart from boiling and processing rice and struggled to concentrate outside of the rote familiarity of his tasks in the rice mill. However, he and his wife started a charcoal-making unit after his father-in-law taught him the trade. Now they add value to their community by employing three other families. They are even able to save some money each month. When asked to share advice with his peers, he said “Our generation hasn’t studied, but the next generation is studying. Put your kids in school; it is very important.”

No longer victims, the former slaves are emerging as strong community leaders. One woman said, “We’ve experienced bonded labor because no one told us. Now that we are free, we want to warn people about it.”

Source:  International Justice Mission

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