Steffie James – Bonded labour in Chennai

Hi everyone!

Having been here now nearly 3 weeks, I just wanted to give you a quick update on how things are going – please feel free to respond with any extra questions or if you want more information, I just don’t want to overload everyone with a lot to read in one go!

In India, if you hold someone in slavery, you are more likely to be struck by lightening than to go to jail. IJM believe that until impunity for the perpetrators is ended, slavery cannot be either. Their vision is a justice system that protects the weak and vulnerable in society, and so they support police/ prosecutors as they take on cases of bonded labour, and work with government at the highest levels to bring long-term, structural change.

IJM Chennai focuses on the issue of bonded labour – a form of modern day slavery that affects half a million people here in Tamil Nadu (the state of India that we are in) alone. Vulnerable families living in poverty take out some sort of ‘loan’ from the person that they are working for -perhaps for a medical emergency, perhaps an advance for travel to their work location or for equipment, perhaps for a big event such as a wedding or a funeral (which are so important within the community), or anything else. They are then trapped, paid wages that are too low to ever hope of paying it back, or not paid at all; unable to leave until their debt is paid, which their owner makes sure does not happen. This debt can often be passed on from generation to generation as it accumulates more and more. Often, bonded labourers are subject to violence and sexual abuse from their owners.

Mariamma was entrapped into bonded labour in a brick factory when she and her family were offered a small advance by the owner to move to his factory. He then insisted that they had to work for nothing until this ‘advance’ was paid off and that they could not move anywhere else. She was sometimes denied food by him for 7 day, and thugs beat up any victim that tried to escape with chains, sticks and knives in front of the other slaves as a warning. She was threatened with death and brutally gang-raped each night by the owner and his men. One time she tried to escape, but he kidnapped three men from her home village and tortured them until she and the other escaped slaves returned.

It is women like Mariamma that IJM are fighting to protect and, moreover, to ensure will always be protected. Since I’ve been here, IJM has (through the police) conducted rescues, freeing bonded labourers from their owners, enabling them to return to their native villages, and supporting them to form self-help groups that they use as a platform to advocate to the government for their rights (including the release certificates and rehabilitation payments that they should receive by law). I can’t describe how exciting it is to have one of the investigators. They’ve also been conducting trainings with government officials and police, advocating for those to be made a mandatory part of the system, and for state-wide plans of action to take place. It’s so amazing to hear at morning prayer from the staff members who are on the ground with the police, actually conducting the rescues and freeing individuals to begin new lives where they have dignity and hope, and from those working so closely with the government to ensure that eventually IJM will no longer be needed.

I feel so grateful to have the opportunity to be here and to learn from such an amazing organisation full of such inspiring people. I’m working for the Programme’s Manager, called Sonali, who is brilliant. Her job is to oversee all the different departments (ie. investigation, legal, rehabilitation, government relations, community engagement etc), monitoring how everything is going, evaluating the work overall and whether IJM are achieving their targets here, and if not, why not. At the moment, she and her team (in consultation with everyone else) are planning the next four years of IJM’s programme in Chennai, working out how to build on the foundation that they have to really ensure that the whole government system is reformed and working proactively to free bonded labourers, protecting their rights and ensuring that their abusers go to prison. The aim in the next four years is to do ourselves out of a job! So far I’ve been researching what are the most effective ways to measure the impact that they are having to feed into the new programme design, which has been fascinating, and there will definitely be no shortage of things to do for the next year!

Once again, I am so grateful to all of you for your support, and for joining IJM’s incredible vision! I’m so excited to be able to play a tiny part in it, I hope that you are too!

Lots of love,


WRITTEN BY: Gary Oaten

“Community Resources and Communications Coordinator”

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