In broken sentences and a feeble voice, Jaydev Chandnia says over the phone that he is shivering while still feeling that his body is on fire.
On Tuesday, the 49-year-old labourer from Odisha’s Sundergarh district fled from a brick-making unit in Vishakapatnam district of Andhra Pradesh, after his employer allegedly threw acid on his face and neck during an altercation over wages.
On Saturday, the Odisha government rescued seven more workers, including four women and a 15-year-old boy, who were part of the group of 12 that left Sundergarh after Dusshera to work at the brick kiln and were held captive there.
Why it is difficult to check exploitation
The Odisha government in 2011 signed a MoU with the Andhra Pradesh government to provide brick kiln workers facilities such as pucca houses and hostels for children. “After the creation of Telangana from Andhra, the MoU is not valid. It needs to be revived for such facilities to continue,” say experts. In 1979, the Central government enacted the Inter-state Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act. Earlier this year, Centre passed the Trafficking of Persons (Prevention, Protection and Rehabilitation) Bill in the Lok Sabha. However, the migratory nature of the job has made it difficult for governments to track the vulnerable population and enforce provisions.
Anil Patnia, Jaydev’s cousin, says, “After working for two months, Jaydev’s group started demanding their wages from the supervisor. Jaydev had returned to Odisha for some work and the supervisor lied to the group that Jaydev had taken their wages and left.”
“The group decided to escape. But, they were caught by the supervisor and his goons at the Koraput-Andhra border. They were taken back and thrashed. When Jaydev returned from Sundergarh, he was accused by the supervisor of taking the group’s wages. When Jaydev called him a liar, the supervisor threw acid on his face and neck,” says Anil.
Odisha’s Labour department said a probe is underway. “The owner of the brick kiln has denied all charges”, said T Bhagyashree, the helpdesk officer of Odisha’s labour department in Vishakapatnam district, who rescued the workers.
Jaydev, who reached his village in Sundergarh Tuesday, was first admitted to the district headquarters hospital and then referred to Burla-based Veer Surendra Sai Institute of Medical Sciences and Research (VIMSAR).
“He has suffered twenty percent burns, but there is no major organ damage. He will have to be referred for plastic surgery to Cuttack’s SCB Medical College and Hospital”, said B M Mishra, attending doctor at VIMSAR.
“I guess he was allowed to leave the kiln because he was unfit to work. Four others slipped away with him,” Anil says.
According to latest figures by officials in Odisha’s labour department, around 1.46 lakh people left the state in 2015 to work as seasonal migrant labourers. Most of these labourers head to the southern states of Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. However, civil society organisations and activists working in the state estimate this number to be ten times more than the official figure.
“Odisha government’s figures are reflecting only registered migrant labourers”, explained Umi Daniel, an activist who works with migrant labourers in Odisha. “Most migrants are told by their employers to not inform the local government that they are migrating. The employers do this to avoid scrutiny,” says Daniel.
“Moreover, the ones who get registered are mostly adult men. However, people who migrate to work at brick kilns do so with their family,” said Daniel, adding that most of Odisha’s migrants working in the brick kiln sector are Dalits and Tribals.
“Every week, the workers are paid a maximum amount of Rs 750 per family for food”, said Daniel. “The remaining wages are mostly not paid until completion of the season after which supervisors find all sorts of reasons to deduct the pending amount”.
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