INDIA – Imagine living in such terror for 20 years that you could not even speak up to those who tried to rescue you.
This was daily life for one Indian couple who had been held in bonded labor slavery at a mango farm for decades. After years of hardship and isolation, today they are finally free—thanks to the work of the Released Bonded Laborers’ Association (RBLA), a group of survivors just like them.
Here’s how it happened:
The couple in this case moved to the mango farm about 20 years ago, when the owner promised them an advance of 100,000 rupees (about $1,300) and a salary of 3,000 rupees per month (about $40). But he never gave them these wages. Instead, he used the advance as a debt to keep them trapped and only “paid” them in poor-quality, bug-infested rice—then forced them to work endlessly under his control.
In slavery, the couple spent long hours tending the mango grove, raising the owner’s livestock, and doing myriad other menial jobs at his home. They were always at his beck and call and could never leave, even to get medical care when they were sick. The owner even chased their son away when he tried to visit.
“These laborers were so scared of the owner, because he was an influential lawyer,” one of the RBLA leaders, Murugesan, explains. “For the past 20 years, they were forced to do every type of work that came up, from taking care of his livestock to fixing leaking water pipes…All this while, they felt like they have been imprisoned.”
IJM and local officials had investigated this mango farm several times since 2016, but the couple was always too scared to reveal the abuse they were enduring. Members of the RBLA even tried to rescue them in 2019, but still they stayed silent.
Finally—in the first week of August 2020—as the abuse became too much to bear, the couple called RBLA leaders and begged for help. Knowing the RBLA leaders had experienced similar abuse allowed the enslaved couple to finally trust someone and open up about what was happening.
RBLA leaders quickly contacted local authorities, who interviewed the couple on Saturday, August 8, and then brought them to safety on Monday, August 10. Officials gave them formal Release Certificates, which break their false debts to the farm owner and declare them as free.
Chinnarasu, an RBLA field coordinator, shares, “I am really happy and relieved that they are finally rescued. We attempted three times to rescue them, but finally when it happened it was a joy to see the tear-filled gratitude of these two laborers. They were old and thought they would die in the mango farm, but today, after many years of perilous torture, they have found freedom.”
Up next, officials will help the couple access helpful benefits, like formal ID cards, food support, and housing if they need it. RBLA leaders will help them return to their home village and begin rebuilding life in freedom. They will be surrounded and supported by survivors who know their exact experience and can support them along the way—so they can achieve the full freedom that has eluded them for so long.