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Stop Children in Slavery Now!

Seven Children Freed from Slavery in India
(by Samuel Grumiau)

Brussels/New Delhi, 26 March 1999 (ICFTU OnLine):

Tuesday, 16 March 1999 marked the end of a long nightmare for seven children from the state of Bihar in India. The NGO "South Asian Coalition on Child Servitude/Bachpan Bachao Andolan" (SACCS/BBA), based in New Delhi, succeeded in freeing the children from the textile workshop where they had been locked up for several months. They worked between 12 and 14 hours a day, seven days a week, weaving carpets or saris (Indian dresses), their only payment being two meagre meals a day. The youngest child was just seven years old. The liberated children are now in a centre run by the NGO near Delhi. They will soon rejoin their respective families, whom some of the children have not seen for three years.

Their personal hell began in a similar way to that experienced by several million Indian children. One day a man arrived in their village. He said he was looking for workers for his workshop and made an offer to the parents to employ their children, whom he promised to pay a decent wage and give them training that would turn them into qualified workers. As proof of his "good" intentions he offered the parents the sum of 200 rupees (roughly $5). In the context of the abject poverty that is rife in the State of Bihar (in north-eastern India), this proposition came as something of a godsend to illiterate villagers who had never heard of the inhuman working conditions in some sweatshops. People like this do not understand the point of school and are convinced that they are making the best choice for their children and for themselves by letting them go. What is more, nobody had ever come to offer them money before the completion of a job, which merely reinforced their faith in their unknown benefactor.

However, the dream of a better life rapidly turned into a nightmare. The wages were never paid and in quite a few cases the parents have no idea where their children have been taken. It is then that a life of slavery begins for the children, who are at the mercy of bosses to whom they have been sold by a middleman, at a price of approximately 1,000 rupees ($25).

They are locked up in the workshops where they work, eat and sleep. The seven children who were freed last Tuesday never received the promised wage of 200 rupees promised to them by the middleman. "They were treated like animals", says Shri Satyarthi, the president of SACCS/BBA, who recently received the human rights prize from the German Friedrich Ebert Foundation.

Their meals were of poor quality, they were beaten if they made a mistake in their work, cried or asked to see their parents again. As punishment, sometimes they were made to stand in painful positions for hours on end.

Shivshankar, who is 14 years old, and his two friends Vijay Kumar and Chander were among the group of seven children who were freed on Tuesday. They told us about "Holi day" (a public holiday in northern India celebrating the end of winter), saying: "our employer took his children and his entire family to the feast in the village. We asked him for two or three rupees to go along and play as well, but he turned a deaf ear. We were forced to continue weaving carpets just like on every other day".

The parents, who soon woke up to the fact that they had been abused, turned to the regional offices of the NGO "SACCS/BBA" to ask them to look for their children. Knowing that in some cases they have been taken to a small village 1,000 kilometres away, it is easy to imagine how difficult it is to find traces of them. However, Shivshankar's mother knew where her son was working. So she went to see the employer, although he had the nerve to demand 1,600 rupees ($40) in return for freeing him. The distraught mother managed to scrabble together this sum, a fortune to her, thanks to members of the family chipping in, but when she went back to see her son's boss, he demanded another 200 rupees. She was shattered, and contacted "SACCS/BBA".

Senior officials at the NGO then organised a raid on the sweatshop to free the children, accompanied by police. When they arrived, the employer had hidden the little 7-year-old Kahir in a box, which they had to break to get him out.

Over the last 18 years, "SACCS/BBA" has freed 50,000 children from slavery. However, these children are merely the tip of the iceberg, and it is estimated that several million children in India are still suffering the same fate. "The problem is particularly rife in the carpet-weaving sector, where 98% of the produce is destined for sale abroad. Each year it earns India hard currency worth 600 million", Shri Satyarthi said at a press conference held on Thursday, 18 March in Delhi and attended by the seven children who had been saved, although they are still traumatised by their experience. The ruthless employers are rarely worried, because the children's parents are simply relieved to be reunited with their children and are reluctant to embark on legal proceedings, fearing reprisals from the mafia-like groups behind the whole child slave trade.

The Indian government maintains that it intends to mount an offensive against the rampant problem of slavery in the country. When will it back up these words with actions?

Samuel Grumiau (in New Delhi)

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