“The SDM recorded our statements, but later refused to give us the release certificates,” said a rescued worker

A month ago, over 40 labourers — landless Dalits from Chhattisgarh — working in brick kilns at Naushera in Rajouri in Jammu and Kashmir made a bold attempt to fight their oppressive employers.

“After four of us were beaten by the brick kiln owner and his munshi in separate instances, we pooled together Rs.15,000 to send Ganga Ram, who had brought us to Rajouri to work and who was working as a labourer himself, back to our village so he could get police help,” recounted Kavita Satnami, a landless dalit labourer from Janjgir Champa in Chhattisgarh, at the office of Bandhua Mukti Morcha in central Delhi.

Ganga Ram reached Chhattisgarh and informed the police, as well as Bandhua Mukti Morcha activist Nirmal Gorana. But even after help arrived, the group of 63 workers, including 25 minors, recounted they reached Delhi on Tuesday night after many obstacles.

“The owners threatened us for trying to act like ‘leaders’. We wanted to leave the brick kiln, but did not know how. After Mr. Gorana reached the brick kiln, the Sub-Divisional Magistrate came with him and recorded our statements on how we were being forced to work at the kilns. But after that the Sub-Divisional Magistrate refused to give us our ‘release certificates’,” said Om Narayan, one of the workers.

The group of workers, which included two pregnant women, said they had to work everyday from 3 a.m. to 8 p.m. They said they had been promised an ‘advance’ of Rs.30,000 per couple and Rs.500 per 1,000 bricks they made, but that even after working for eight months they had not been paid the by the owners of B.B.K. brick kiln in Jangad village of Rajouri.

“We have worked in brick kilns in Haryana and Punjab, and this was the first time we had travelled to Jammu and Kashmir. At this kiln, the owners abused and threatened both men and women regularly,” Kavita added.

“The District Magistrate refused to cooperate despite knowing about the work conditions at the brick kiln, and that the workers were being kept there against their will. The Sub-Divisional Magistrate had recorded the statements, but even after that the District Magistrate refused to issue ‘release certificates’,” said Mr. Gorana, who travelled to Rajouri from Delhi after receiving the tip-off.

The workers have planned to hold a demonstration outside Jammu and Kashmir Bhavan to protest their mistreatment by the authorities.

A “release certificate” entitles workers rescued from forced labour to Rs.20,000 and State assistance to acquire land or skill-based alternate means of livelihood under the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976. As per the data from the Chhattisgarh Labour Department, the District Labour Office in Janjgir-Champa received 152 complaints from workers in bonded debt at kilns and construction sites between 2010 and 2013. Only 103 of these workers — less than five per cent — possess “release certificates”, under which they can claim State assistance.

“The Chhattisgarh authorities ought to pay attention to and analyse why workers and farmers must migrate from the State in distress, and what it means for the State’s economy,” said Action Aid activist Chandan Kumar.

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