On a July afternoon in VV’s Goa office, a phone call rudely interrupted the rain soaked stupor of the office. IU Community Correspondent Shanti Baraik was in town and needed help rescuing twelve people working as bonded labourers in Margao, in South Goa.
Bonded labour, if you believe the Government of India’s version, does not exist anymore. The only survey ever done was in 1978, two years after the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act was passed. The Act mandates the formation of Vigilance committees at district and sub-district levels but in most cases the administration refuses to acknowledge that these violations of human rights occur.
It all started three months earlier in Jharkhand’s Tati village in Gumla District. Bharat Sahu, his wife and child along with twelve other people including a woman and child had left their villages in search of better employment opportunities. They had ended up in Goa, over 2000 kilometres away.
Unemployment is one the biggest challenges that Jharkhand faces at this point in time. The grand schemes to develop the State via its rich mineral resources have ravaged its people. They get neither the economic benefits of any mining nor jobs, often promised to them when they are being thrown off their lands to make way for industry.
The men, who would be doing the work for a Goan contractor, were to start as soon as they reached. They were given living quarters at the back of the contractors house. They were promised one job but ended up cleaning gutters in Margao, that too for the Goan Municipality. At first the men were a little hesitant, they didn’t want to clean them, especially not without protective gear.
It was then that the abuse started. Any refusal to do a task or requests to go back to Jharkhand were met with beatings. No illness, small or big, was reason enough to get a day off from work. The contractor would come each morning and set them to work.
“He’d often tell us how he owned the cops. They are in my pocket, he’d say,” recalls Madan Baraik from the safety of his home in Jharkhand.
Eventually, the contractor confiscated the phones and voter ID’s of all the men working for him. None had thought that their search for jobs would turn into this. The monsoon torrents now washed their hopes into the very drains they had been cleaning.
“Living and working for him… I think we might have been better off as prisoners in a jail instead of existing as his slaves”, says Bharat Baraik. And that is some statement to make because anyone who has lived in Jharkhand knows that those jails reek of death and despair…
It was almost like telepathy that those back in Jharkhand were now beginning to worry. Bharat’s sister, Chuamar, hadn’t heard from them in over 20 days. They should have been back home by June. It was at that time that someone in Goa managed to get to a mobile phone and sneaked a call back home. They wanted someone to come rescue them.
In a panic Chuamar, ran over to Shanti Baraik and asked her to accompany her to Goa. She knew that Shanti had been part of some NGO training and that she’d be able to help.
“I have never travelled outside of Jharkhand. This was my first time. We travelled the last minute and spent the three-day journey on different parts of the train’s floor. I didn’t mind; I was going to help my brothers and sisters. This was also incidentally the first video I shot as an IndiaUnheard Community Correspondent,” recalls Shanti.
Once in Goa, the women managed to find their way to the contractor’s house. They asked him to bring out their family. Once again, infuriated by Chuamar and Shanti’s questions, the contractor verbally and physically assaulted those he had held captive as bonded labourers.
“We went to a nearby police station and tried to lodge a complaint. They wouldn’t file a complaint. Instead the contractor came over and started accusing the men of owing him Rs.3 Lakh. I then decided to call the VV office for help. Soon, Mr Joseph Vaz and Clifton—both Goan activists—came over,” says Shanti.
She continues, “They helped us file a written complaint to the District Collector’s office. The Collector, Mr N.D Agarwal, was co-operative and immediately issued an order to the contractor to free the labourers.”
The contractor by now had his defences up. He realised that this time pulling connections and his bullying would do him no good. He even attempted to take the labourers to the train station and told them to run to Jharkhand.
“We usually hear about how officers shirk their responsibilities. In the way that the system works, the contractor had been bribing the cops so they never came to check on the labourers”, says Clifton.
On 12.7.2013, the police facilitated a temporary settlement with the contractor after much argument. He presented certain figures as the final amount he would pay them. There was no documentation or accounts to show how these figures were arrived at. Of the Rs.22,000 owed to them, the labourers were paid only Rs.8,360 each. He further deducted Rs.1000 each from them on account of ‘losses’ he had incurred. But at that point in time, their lives were more important and they were in no position to bargain more. The men took what they could.
“At that time, when we met the labourers before going to the police station, we had tried to ascertain what was owed to them. They had no idea and wanted to do an honest calculation. They felt bad asking for more than what was due. Eventually we convinced them that a ballpark was OK, they were the ones being cheated here…” says Shobha, Programme Director of VV. Even six months later, her eyes get fiery at the memory of that stormy afternoon.
On 13.7.2013, the contractor was to make the rest of the payments. He insisted that he would only make the due payments (according to his calculations) if the group signed receipts agreeing this was the full and final settlement. In front of the police, he threatened, and started abusing the VV team and other activists present there. Eventually, he was forced to leave and the group of twelve started making their way back to Jharkhand.
“What made me angry was the fact that this man, instead of paying the labourers was treating them worse than animals. What made me even angrier were some of the police officers. Once they had the uniform, they had stopped caring about anyone else. Instead of supporting poor migrants, they were taking sides with the hooligan contractor,” says Shanti
The men have settled back into a routine of agricultural and small labour back in their villages. They are still waiting for justice to take its full course. Under the Act, the contractor is liable to be punished and fined. The men are owed around 13,000 each by the contractor and are eligible for rehabilitation from the government.
If you’ve watched and read their story and were infuriated by it, you can make sure, that the families get what is owed to them. YOU can make sure that no other individual is humiliated and abused by this contractor. All you have to do is make a quick call.
Please call the Jharkhand Labour Officer, Pooja Singhal on 06512481013 and ask her to continue investigating this case.
Team VV would like to thank activists Joseph Vaz, Clifton D'souza and Sebastian Rodrigues for their unflinching support through this entire case. It would not have been possible without you. Read Sebastian's article here.
Many have decided to stay back in Maharashtra while others are migrating back to their home towns.