Local voices living behind the labour lines - India

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Female workers routinely face sexual harassment

Mina Jadhav, Preeti Ojha and Sudhir Katiyar

Sexual harassment in the work place is a universal phenomenon, but for women in bonded labour it is a common occurrence that is almost impossible to challenge. Imagine you are a seasonal migrant without a support base of any kind and you are living at a location far away from your home. You belong to a community that is historically weak and disenfranchised, you cannot approach the local police because they invariably side with the powerful. You are completely dependent upon your employer for everything, you can not even leave the work premises because you have taken a cash advance before starting work. Then the sexual harassment assumes an entirely different meaning. It becomes more like sexual predation. The vast mass of tribal female workers in the informal sector in India face sexual violence on a routine basis. Cases of sexual violence in the workplace are very common. However few such cases get reported to the outside public, in the highly patriarchal society that India is, reporting sexual violence is not easy.

Still, there are a few cases that do get reported; Geeta, 16, was brave enough to share her story. This incident took place in Gujarat, a state that has been touted as the model for the whole county and is the constituency previously held by the current Indian Prime Minister. The case illustrates that the law and order machinery of the state is outside the bounds of the poor unless mediated by civil society groups of which there are not many.

Geeta is from a village in Gujarat, she has three brothers and three sisters. She studied till class eight and then in February 2014 she went to work in brick kilns 150 kms away from her home. Her brothers and cousins were already working there in November, transporting fired bricks from the kiln for loading in trucks, and had spent almost four months by the time Geeta joined them.

A female contractor, Avani Bai, had already advanced Geeta’s family Rs. 60,000 (£608) for four workers, and her uncle Rs. 30,000 (£303) for two workers. In February Avani put pressure on the family to send one more worker for work as the advance was against six workers, but only five were working. Geeta went to the kiln as there was no other person left at home.

After she started work, she was stared at and followed by three young men whom she did not know by name, one would repeatedly smile at her. Six days after she had arrived, when Geeta was loading bricks in the truck, this person climbed on the truck to receive bricks from Geeta, he pressed her hand and Geeta then moved away.

That night Geeta was sleeping outside her hut with a group of young girls. Late in the night the three young men covered her mouth with a cloth and lifted her to nearby fields. They took her to a nearby hut where she was raped by the young man targeting her while the other two kept guard. By this time, the other girls realized that Geeta was missing and raised an alarm. The workers gathered and rescued Geeta from the hut. It turned out one of the group members pursuing Geeta was the son of the owner of the kiln while another one was the supervisor at the kiln.

After the incident the group decided that they will not work anymore at the brick kiln. The labor contractor and the kiln owner did not agree to let the group go back. They instead said that the family should reach a settlement about the incident, but continue working. The settlement offer was to marry the rapist and get some money. The workers did not agree to this, instead they informed their family members back at home who sent a vehicle to pick them up.

The vehicle arrived at the brick kiln two days after the incident, the female members of the group sat in the vehicle to go back. At this point the brick kiln owner collected a group and attacked the workers, they beat up the jeep driver badly and he ran away. The kiln owner removed the tires of the jeep and kept it in his compound. The female workers were asked to go back to their huts. They were asked to pay back a sum of Rs. 1.5 lakhs (Rs. 150,000/ £1520) if they wanted to go back.

It took the family members a week to collect this money. A group came from the workers’ village along with the village headman to pay the ransom money and bring the group back. Even this did not happen easily. The workers report that the owner collected a group to kidnap Geeta but somehow they were able to sit in their jeep and go back to the village.

After the group reached the village, Geeta’s father approached the village headman to help in filing a police case. The headman approached the head constable who was on the local beat. Rs. five thousand was paid. A food and drink party was organized, however nothing came of it.

Int Bhatta Majdoor Union is active in this area and has helped workers get their back wages in a number of cases. Bharat bhai is the Union cadre from this area, almost six months after the incident, he learnt about the incident and immediately contacted the Union. The whole family group came to the Ahmedabad office and then the Union team went to the police station and Geeta’s brothers were asked to give evidence. Various police reports were filed and for the first time Section 370 of IPC, that deals with human trafficking, has been invoked (after much argument with the police).

The case is remarkable for its extreme brutality, but is in many ways symptomatic of the vulnerabilities faced by the brick kiln workers across the state and the country. It shows almost complete absence of regulation of any kind at the brick kilns. The system of advances leading to debt bondage, non-payment of wages, extortion if the workers want to leave early, violence including sexual violence – all these features are common to brick kilns all over the country to some extent.

Names of persons and place have been changed to ensure confidentiality.