Making every stitch count – the story of Khader

21-year old Khader was rescued from two years as a bonded labourer at a Sewing Unit in Ramanagara, in August 2019. “I enjoyed a lot of my childhood years, but everything I knew changed when my father died suddenly. I had to shoulder the responsibility of the family,” says Khadar, as he begins to tell his story. His father had supported the family by selling fruits on a small mobile cart in the village, while his mother worked at a sericulture unit. Khader and his three siblings were in school at that time and Khadar’s dream to study further ended rather abruptly when he was in the 7th standard.

“I was just a boy, but there was no one else,” says Khader simply. Faced with the decision of finding a livelihood to support his mother and siblings, Khader chose to take up tailoring, a proficiency he had picked up by working occasionally with his uncle. “My uncle was always willing to teach me something new about tailoring and in my teenage years I found it fascinating to cut fabric for shirts, trousers, blouses, suits and the traditional salwar sets as well,” Khader says with a grin. He found employment for a few years with various tailoring units and managed to make ends meet for the family.

In a couple of years, Khadar’s family fixed his marriage to a young girl Tabassum, who by then had a steady job at a sericulture unit. “Although we were both quite young, we agreed to the marriage proposal and started living in Rahmania Nagar in Ramanagara district after the wedding,” Khader narrates. Tabassum’s job brought in a steady but small income for the family and before long, they realized that Khader would have to supplement the financial resources with a better paying job. It was these situations which led to Khader taking up the employment at a bigger tailoring shop which had 2 sewing units, on the lure of higher wages. Since he was promised a daily wage of Rs. 500, it looked like too good an opportunity to pass up. “We imagined all the things that would get better with a daily earning like that,” Khader explains, especially as they also needed money for the delivery of their first son.

Khader took an advance from the owner on interest and began working at the tailoring unit. He was totally unprepared for what he encountered right from the beginning. Contrary to the promises, he was paid Rs. 200 per week, and that was also only sporadically. There was frequent verbal and physical abuse. He was not allowed to look for any alternate employment options to support his family. Despite long hours, there was no respite from the abuse and violence. Khader and his wife began to live in fear, anxiety and despair. “When the financial situation got desperate, I tried to work for a few hours at a construction site on a daily wage basis to run the home and buy a few supplies for my wife and son,” Khadar’s voice trembles at the memory, because when the owner of the tailoring unit found out this, he beat and physically assaulted young Khader on more than one occasion.

“I worked at this tailoring unit for almost 1 and a half years,” recounts Khadar. He worked 12-hour days every day. There was no reprieve and no way of escape since the owner knew where Khader and his family and uncle lived. It was a small community in that locality and it invariably meant that everyone knew each other, but surprisingly, this did not serve as a deterrence to the owner’s abuse and violence towards Khadar.

Things had only progressed from bad to worse and it was the feeling of being trapped in all sides that was taking its toll on Khader and Tabassum as well. “I often found solace in sitting alone at the railway station nearby and crying bitterly about the state of my life,” Khader narrates. He describes how the cacophony of passing trains and people milling around him concealed the sound of his helpless sobs. It was on one such day at the station that he was drawn into a conversation with a social worker/field staff from an NGO, which brought in a glimmer of hope. He had borrowed the stranger’s phone to make a call to Tabassum. That serendipitous interaction led to a longer and deeper dialogue with the social worker.

As the conversation progressed, Khader slowly gained confidence to narrate various anecdotes of the predicament he was in. As he gave details of his story, he began to believe that there was a chance for his life to change. Upon being encouraged by the social worker, Khader agreed to stay connected with him over the next 2-3 weeks. Each conversation helped him understand a little more about the crime and conditions of “bonded labour”, something he had never heard of before.

Khader describes the day he was rescued from the oppressive tailoring unit in a series of vivid images. He narrates that a team comprising of the DC, 2 policemen and advocates from IJM come to the tailoring unit and transported him to the DC’s office amid questions by the owner and the others at the shop. Simultaneously his wife Tabassum was brought to the DC’s office by another part of the rescue team. The owner was arrested at the tailoring unit and brought to the Vidhana Soudha where a detailed inquiry was conducted by the DC. “I was quite overwhelmed and unable to speak up clearly at the inquiry because of the owner’s presence right there,” says Khader honestly. Thereafter the owner was released on the grounds of insufficient evidence.

Khader is unfazed by the owner’s frequent calls after the rescue, asking him to come back to the tailoring unit and his promises that he would pay him well. Khader and Tabassum have recently had a baby girl and are hopeful that they will be able to create a safe and happy environment for their children Mohammad Jaffer and Alina. Though the Release Certificate and rehabilitation benefits from the government are yet to come through, Khader dares to dream of a future as a free man. With a tailoring machine of his own, he now makes a decent living for himself and the family. “I want to start a tailoring unit of my own and educate my children so they will one day have government jobs,” Khader says confidently. They say a stitch in time saves nine – and one would have to agree in Khadar’s case, because he makes sure every stitch counts.