MUMBAI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - An Indian woman who spent three years working 16-hour days cleaning toilets without pay has won the country’s highest possible compensation under a scheme introduced in 2016 to help modern slavery victims rebuild their lives.
Rehana Begum had spent two years battling for compensation in India’s courts since she quit, a move that left her homeless and her husband jobless after his tea stall was destroyed in apparent revenge for her decision.
Last week authorities, who have faced criticism for being too slow to compensate victims, finally paid Begum 180,000 Indian rupees ($2,600) after her former boss was convicted. She is the first survivor known to have got the full amount.
“The employer had promised me a job and a house. He built me a hut next to a public toilet and asked me to clean it to repay him. I worked 16 hours every day but wasn’t paid anything in three years,” Begum told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“He said if I refused to clean the toilets, he would not pay me ever. I feared I will lose all my earnings if I quit. I didn’t know I was a bonded labour,” she said.
India increased compensation for slavery survivors in 2016. But no one had received the full amount until this month because the payments are linked to a conviction, which can take years.
Delhi district officials told the city’s high court earlier this month they had processed Begum’s payment and when she visited her bank last week she found the amount had been credited.
She appears to be the first survivor to have received the full compensation amount, although the labour ministry official Supriyo Samadder said her case had yet to be recorded in the central database.
India outlawed bonded labour four decades ago, but unscrupulous employers still dupe people into working without pay in fields, brick kilns, rice mills, brothels or as domestic workers to pay off debts.
Begum would have continued working for no wages if it had not been for a chance meeting with campaigners who were holding an awareness campaign on bondage outside the toilet she cleaned.
“She was upset about how dirty people left the toilets when we first saw her. She said she had not been paid for this work for years,” said Nirmal Gorana, convener of the National Campaign Committee for Eradication of Bonded Labour.
Lawyers at the Human Rights Law Network helped her to secure her former employer’s conviction - and the full payout.
But the legal battle took a toll on Begum and her family.
“It is shameful if a rescued worker has to move court for compensation,” Gorana said.
While the cash aid will be helpful, Begum said it was far from sufficient.
“I am free now, but I need a job. I need a home,” she said.
($1 = 69.8310 Indian rupees)
Reporting by Roli Srivastava @Rolionaroll; Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org