COVID-19 and Forced Labour

Supriya Awasthi

Northern India has been source of forced migration due to several factors of extreme poverty, floods, less of livelihood options with denial of basic rights. Large number of children, girls and women are trafficked from these source areas to states of Delhi, Haryana, Punjab, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Southern India. Majority of population in Northern India is forced to migrate to work in agriculture, brickkilns, tea garden, apparel, embroidery, steel factories and construction work to earn livelihood for their families. Several contractors and traffickers trap them in lieu of advance and debts being taken by them/their family members in their home villages. Heavy interest rate on debts compels them either to become bonded labor; or send their family members to work in different states of India in different industries. These workers face hard time in industries with poor working conditions, less payment of wages and long working hours. Despite these, they work for their families to survive and earn livelihood though hardly they know if contractors/traffickers have sent them money. Although they wanted to return back to their homes somehow, but they were not allowed to go back.

With the Pandemic COVID-19 when the whole world got affected, workers situation also got worse. With the sudden lockdown in India, millions of workers in industries were forced to stay in industry and other workplaces with less of safety measures and less of awareness among the workers from other states. Due to no transportation many of the workers were not able to go back to their homes and were living life of misery. Many of the workers were forced to live without food and ration and hardly any money to survive.

With all these pathetic conditions, and some relaxation by the Govt on lockdowns and transportation, reverse migration took place where millions of workers of Assam, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal got back to their homes and their villages. Many of the workers walked thousands of kms to reach their homes. Many of the workers shared that they walked hundreds of kms without food and water and with no money to feed their family members. Though govt has announced several schemes and services for the migrant laborer’s but many of them are still waiting to get it.

Reverse migration during the COVID-19 situation, lead to the threat of community spread of the virus, as a result less option for workers to get job in their home places. Since these workers hardly made any savings due to exploitation in their workplaces, with less payment of wages and also, they spent all of their money whatever they saved during the lockdown in buying food and ration; it has been hard for them to survive in the village. These laborer’s have taken loans and debts from the money lenders and other groups from the upper caste in their villages during the pandemic in lieu of which they work for money lender’s agriculture work, brickkilns and construction work. Status of laborers in villages have gone worse due to no payment of minimum wages and discriminations made on basis of caste and gender. Where women are paid less as compared to men as well community belonging to lower castes and minorities face more atrocities and exploitation. Villagers say that minorities and people from lower caste are being source of COVID virus in the village. This has resulted in denial of basic rights of the laborer’s belonging to lower castes and the minorities; and due to which  they don’t have any other option than taking debt and paying high interest rate. No payment of wages and heavy debts taken by the returned laborer’s have led to the  situation of bonded labor in many of the villages across the states of Northern India where they have no option to choose other job, or to sell their products made by them and live free life.

Though there is National rural Employment Guarantee scheme for migrant workers and ensures minimum payment of wages under the scheme, but still many of the returned laborer’s have not been able to access it with no job cards. During the pandemic Govt has introduced the schemes for loans from banks for setting up the Micro enterprises in the villages but many of the returned workers hardly have any accurate information about the schemes to have access.

With less of information and awareness workers who returned back to the villages are in more pathetic situation than where they were working. During the pandemic, many of the civil societies as well stopped their activities in the villages , due to which many of the workers and the communities itself are not getting aware about many general information about the making access to livelihood options and about their rights of not being forced to work in lieu of loan being taken. Few incidences of suicides of returned migrant laborers have been in the news highlights as their family was indebted with heavy loans and with no source of income to feed their family.

Health issue has been important concern for everyone and as well for the returned workers in the villages. With less of safety measures and unhygienic condition, these workers have been spending their earnings on medicines and other health care and are forced to take debts for well-being of their family members. In case if they don’t return back the loans, they are either forced to work or their lands will be encroached by the money lenders. Poor health conditions and access to health care has been costly for the communities during the COVID 19 as many of them prefer to go to private hospitals than govt. hospitals. Private hospitals have been charging heavy fees to these labourers. For even minor cold and sickness they need to pay hundreds of rupees.

Overall it can be concluded that impact of Covid 19 on workers returned from other states is worse. These workers have lost their jobs and are paying heavy interest rates for the debt they took in the village. They have been denied of their basic rights and are forced to live in situation bondage for returning back the loans they took from the moneylenders after returning back to the village. They at present don’t dream for any future except taking care of their families daily bread. Women have less to bargain in the village for their wages as they don’t have any other options for work. Since schools are closed in the villages and other town areas, more children are working in the agriculture and other places like brickkiln, small hotels and garages. Community in the villages feel like when we all are paid less children by working can also contribute in earning of the family. Hence it has been essential that the programs and schemes and policies launched by the govt to prevent exploitation and hunger should specifically reach these vulnerable groups and communities during the Pandemic as still pandemic is on.

There are many success stories of the saving groups during the pandemic who are making masks, sanitizers and other health products for their income and earning livelihood. Similarly there are examples of returned workers from other states who started their micro enterprises collectively with the savings they made while working in other states.Hence with holistic approach many returned workers and their families could be brought out from the chain of indebtedness and bondedness and thus prevent themselves from further slavery and trafficking.

Over the years I have rescued 1000s of people from different forms of modern day slavery and have organized them to be resilient against slave owners and access their rights.

In the process of social empowerment its important to provide them livelihood skills so to minimize their vulnerability.

Success story

Many  group members learned skills of tailoring. During pandemic and lockdown many former slaves communities were  unable to access mask and sanitizers and soap to wash hands .Our field  coordinators were providing them awareness  on taking  measures to keep safe. Govt authorities were  unable to reach in remote villages in Northern India.

Group women requested us to provide them raw material so that  they can produce masks, sanitizer and soap.

In very short time  they were  able to make masks, soap and sanitizer not only to use for themselves  but to sell in nearby markets and distributed for free for those who were  unable to buy. Former  slaves not only made income during  pandemic but were able to make some income to beat the harsh period during lockdown, which otherwise could have made them prey to fall into debt bondedness.

Rescue operation during pandemic  lockdown

Identifying new communities where families are in slavery  is an on going process. We got the information from a village  from where nearly 70 kids had been trafficked to another state in West India from Uttar Pradesh. Parents were  desperate, we were helpless as the entire nation was shut down. Along with our partner NGO we made a complaint to the  highest authorities of law enforcement of  destination state, sharing  details of the facility which we got from one of the parents.To our surprise the complaint was compelling, we got the response from senior police officer and he assured to conduct rescue operation and rescued 70 kids  from textile industry   who belong  to several  villages in Uttar Pradesh. Since there was no mode of transportation was functional, children  rescued  were kept in a shelter  home for few days and were only sent when trains started running.

Desperate calls from migrant workers in garment sectors

During lockdown many young  female migrant workers who had been  trafficked to south India were  unable to come back as their movement was restricted and employers did not provide any support. They were literally locked in side without being paid.Few of the workers were  able to reach me over phone and requested to rescue them. I along with field activist made efforts their voice heard  by a local radio station which was airing plight of migrant workers, with the help of local  groups in South India, migrant workers  were  rescued and were sent to their homes.

Note: Specific names of villages, cities are  not  mentioned to protect their safety.

Supriya Awasthi bio

My career for the past nearly 2 decades reveals a life that has been wholly dedicated to the eradication of slavery in Asia.Having had the honor of being recognized early on by founding leaders in this field,the various movements and projects that I have participated in administered and implemented are now considered pioneer upon which much of today’s community-based anti-slavery work. My work with various NGO’s in South Asia and Free The Slaves have focused on dismantling both archaic and modern systems of slavery.In order to perform both field work and management duties one requires a balanced insight into the ground reality of slavery as well as the theory and strategies to enable enslaved communities and individuals to stand against systems of oppression.From campaign coordinator of a national child rights organization to South Asia director for an international anti-slavery movement,I have executed programs such as Liberation for Education, Education for Liberation (1996-1999), and Child Friendly Village (1998-2000) implemented programs such as Slavery Lens with the aim to maximize the reach of anti-slavery efforts and help international aid to achieve its own goals by working with development agencies. (2007), and Freedom Dividend (2010) means another level of sustained liberation when communities become self-organised and they address slavery’s root cause. The trainings I have conducted and integrated into local anti-slavery grassroots NGO approaches include Outcome Mapping, Causal Model, several others methodologies that impart monitoring tools for the evaluation of evidence-based slavery eradication.Professional achievements include: the planning, execution, and management of Bihar state’s first and only NGO shelter home for sex-trafficked survivors and receiving two Emmy Awards for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Craft Research for the documentary films The Carpet Slaves: Stolen Children of India (2001) and Kids Behind Bars (2002).


Supriya Awasthi is a true pioneer in the field of modern slavery, having been the South Asia Director for the Free the Slaves organization since its inception.