Bhubaneswar: This year on the occasion of ‘World Day Against Trafficking in Persons’, the United Nations (UN) is focussing on the first responder to human trafficking. These are the people who work in different sectors – identifying, supporting, counselling and seeking justice for victims of trafficking, and challenging the impunity of the traffickers.
One such shining example is a 19-year-old Manasi Bariha from Odisha’s Balangir district. Her courage and presence of mind helped in freeing of over 6000 labourers stuck in various brick kilns of Tamil Nadu during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Manasi along with 355 other labourers hailing from Odisha’s Balangir, Nuapada and Kalahandi districts used to work at the GDM brick kiln in Pudhukuppam in Tiruvallur. The owner had sourced the labourers through a labour agent using cash advances as bait. Like Manasi’s family, most of the others were in huge debts and needed work.
The labourers had already been at the kiln for more than six months without hardly any facilities. The labourers used to work from 4 am to 10:30 am and from 3 pm to 10:30 pm and paid Rs 250 to Rs 300, once every week to purchase essentials from a nearby shop. This was less than Rs 30 per day.
However, with the announcement of the shutdown, the labourers began to worry about their return. They approached the kiln owner who promised to leave them if they complete the targeted number of bricks within a week.
“All of us toiled day and night to complete the bricks so that we could leave for home. Our relatives were pressurising us to return and we were scared of the disease as well,” recalls Manasi.
However, when the labourers, after completion of their work, approached the owner, he refused to let them go. The owner used his goons to pull the workers out of their shanties at the kiln and force them to continue making bricks. On May 18, when the workers protested, the owner and his men thrashed all of them mercilessly. Neither the women nor children were spared.
“They lost their cool when they saw some of the workers packing their luggage to return home. The men pulled out lathis and went berserk with their brutal attack. The workers were bleeding profusely. Some were left grievously injured in the incident and needed urgent medical attention. They broke the rib bone of one of the workers while many received a head injury,” recalls Manasi.
The brave teen mustered all her courage and quickly slipped into a safe space from where she made frantic calls for help. “I called up almost all the numbers on my mobile and shared the photos, audios and videos of the injured men to all WhatsApp contacts appealing for urgent help. I knew that the owner will not take us to the hospital and some might die of profuse bleeding,” Manasi shares.
Meanwhile, the gruesome images of labourers bleeding profusely sent by Manasi surfaced on social media. One of Manasi’s acquaintance reached out to a voluntary organization for help which quickly worked with the Tiruvallur district administration and legal authorities to rescue the labourers expeditiously. The injured labourers were taken to a hospital.
An FIR was lodged against the kiln. While the accomplices of the owner were arrested, the owner Munuswami, managed to abscond.
The Government also enquired about other brick kilns in the area and learnt about migrant workers trapped in difficult conditions. Majority of them were Odia workers. Subsequently, workers in as many as 30 brick kilns in Tiruvallur were rescued and allotted special trains for their travel so they can return home comfortably.
About 150 buses were arranged which ferried 6750 labourers, including the 355 labourers (from the kiln in which Manasi was working) to the railway station to board trains to their homes in Odisha, Bihar, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh between May 19 and 20. Police officials travelled along with them to ensure safety throughout the journey.
Police sources revealed that the owner identified as Munuswamy of GDM brick kiln was a habitual offender found guilty for the third time. The same brick kiln had been raided in 2015 rescuing 333 labourers following a second rescue in 2016, freeing 328 labourers. Both times, FIRs were filed against the owner, but he managed to abscond.
The ugly reality of human trafficking
“Unorganised and migrant workers are the most vulnerable to trafficking which has clearly taken the shape of organised crime now. With Covid-19 and the uncertainty surrounding it, it is likely that many labourers will be forced into debt for their survival triggering conditions of bondage and even wage-less labour. Unfortunately, the children will suffer too. It is hence important for the government as well as the civil society to come together to address this vulnerability and to ensure that the poor claim their entitlements and benefits,” stated Neenu Thomas, Director (Odisha Projects), International Justice Mission that works on Human Trafficking.