Bonded labour employers go free as probes slow down

Chennai: Recent rescues of bonded labourers from brick kilns and rice mills in Kancheepuram and Tiruvallur have thrown up a shocking fact - despite cases filed under stringent laws, employers wriggle out and continue to employ bonded labourers in the same location.

This was evident last Wednesday when the Ponneri Revenue Divisional Officer and police rescued more than 500 people from a brick kiln unit which had been raided in 2011. District officials said the owner of the unit had been arrested in 2011 for employing bonded labourers from Chhattisgarh. Sources in the district administration admit that he managed to get bail due to slow investigation by police and resumed exploiting migrant labourers.

A similar case occurred ast month in Chengalpet when bonded labourers were rescued from the same rice mill in two separate raids in the space of a month.

A Kancheepuram district administration official said tardy investigation and delay in filing chargesheets allowed the perpetrators to go free. "If the investigation is not completed within three months, the accused get statutory bail from co urt," he said. Despite being booked under SCST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, the accused managed to escape, he added.

Kural Amuthan, director at International Justice Mission (IJM), an NGO which assists in rescue missions, said police viewed bonded labour as a labour issue and not as a problem of human trafficking which is internationally classified as organised crime. "The investigation is not done with the same vigour as a rape or murder case which have the same penalty , that is, seven years to life imprisonment," Amuthan said.

The victims are mostly from oppressed classes and given the feudal relationship with their `owners', shy away from seeking legal representation and fear testifying against their oppressors, Amuthan added. "This is also one of the reasons why freed bonded labourers go back and work in the same environment. If the owner is in jail, the other actors in the crime chain like middlemen and contractors threaten them," said Richard Ebenezer, an advocate practising in the Madras high court.

The Centre is also planning to increase the rehabilitation amount for the rescued labourers from `20,000 to ``2 lakh but with a caveat that the money reaches the victims only after prosecution. "How can victims restart their lives if perpetrators are allowed to go scot free?" Amuthan said.

NHRC notice to TN

Chennai: The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has sought a report from the Tamil Nadu government on the rescue of 550 bonded labourers from a brick manufacturing unit in Tiruvallur district recently.The NHRC has asked the government to specify the steps taken to rehabilitate the labourers.