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High Court passes landmark judgement against bonded labour offenders

The Hon’ble High Court Judge made powerful statements that shook stale ideologies on the issue of bonded labour in a judgement made against bonded labour offenders on 9 June 2017. The accused persons, including the owner of the rice mill, his son and an accountant had exploited more than 100 labourers and held them in debt bondage in Powerhouse rice mill for years.

Bonded labourers were rescued from this rice mill twice by Revenue Divisional Officers from Thiruvallur. Speaking strongly against the crime, the Honourable High Court Judge, P. Velmurugan upheld the conviction of the lower court. A few points from the judgement are highlighted below:

  1. Involvement is enough (p.14): People involved in the employment of bonded labour can be sentenced for the offence of bonded labour – ownership of the facility is not a requirement, thus people who work with/for the owner can also be prosecuted.
  2. A third party can lodge a complaint on behalf of victims (p.14-15): The workers are uneducated and illiterate. They do not know their rights. Therefore, a third party, such as a social worker or an NGO worker can lodge a complaint on their behalf, if the workers do not file a complaint.
  3. Statement of RDO and Release Certificates are enough to prove the existence of bonded labour (p.15-16)
  4. Welcoming the participation of NGOs in bonded labour cases (p.18-20): “It is only through social action groups working amongst the poor that we shall be able to discover the existence of bonded labour and we shall be able to identify and release them. We would strongly urge upon the State Government to include the representatives of such social action groups in the vigilance committees and to give them full support and cooperation,” said the Judge.
  5. Trivial omissions between 161 statements and discrepancies in testimonies do not affect the credibility of witnesses (p.20-21). The Judge expressed the importance of understanding the “hard realities of village life” and to be careful not to give “undeserved benefit to the accused who have perpetrated the heinous crime.”

The powerful statements made by the Judge are highly impactful as it sends a clear message to the offenders that bonded labour is a crime that is taken seriously by the Madras High Court and that people from the marginalised sections of society are not neglected by the State.

Following this landmark judgement, The Supreme Court of India ordered the accused men to surrender in response to their appeal filed on 17 July 2017.

Crl.A.No.322 of 2010, High Court of Madras, June 9, 2017