Uttar Pradesh, India – An army of workers, their faces encrusted with dust, toils beside a story-high pile of unfired bricks. They are helping build a new India that appears to be leaving them behind.
From sunup to sundown they spend their time pouring wet mud into molds, lugging them to the kiln, firing them and then pulling them out. For their backbreaking work, they do not receive wages.
They are working to pay off a debt.
In India they are known as bonded laborers, bound to those who gave them or their forefathers an advance or a loan. Human rights advocates call them modern day slaves.
Before his work injury, Gagai said he tried to escape several times but was always found and brought back.
There are no physical signs the villagers are living in bondage: no chains, fences or armed guards, but the villagers say they are all slaves just the same.
“If I don’t work, they will beat me. They will abuse my daughter,” said Lalti, a mother of seven. “If you don’t give in, they will sell your daughter or son.”
Lalti said she had to borrow money from the landowner to treat her husband’s tuberculosis years ago, and now she can’t come and go as she pleases.
“I am an illiterate, so how would I know how much we owe, and what’s left to pay? I don’t even know how much we had taken. It’s been many years.”
As payment for work, she and her neighbors receive leftover food or bags of grain, Lalti said. They are beholden to the man who owns the land they live on.
None of them had heard of the Indian law that made bonded labor illegal more than 30 years ago.
“People in modern day slavery have no idea they can ever access any kind of rights,” said Awasthi of Free the Slaves.
Lalti hopes she is able to work long enough so her children will be freed from the loan that binds her family to the land and a hard life.
“The day I pay my debt I will be free. We’ll be prosperous,” Lalti said.
Generations pay off debts through slavery – The CNN Freedom Project: Ending Modern-Day Slavery – CNN.com Blogs.