MUMBAI, Feb 17 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Police in northwestern India are investigating whether a brick kiln owner held migrant workers and their children in debt bondage, after labourers and activists protested preliminary findings that there were no violations of labour laws.
Forty people - from eight families, including adult workers and about a dozen children - were allowed to leave the kiln this week in Bathinda district in Punjab state after activists and other workers said they had been held against their will because the owner said they owed money.
One of the women was pregnant, and the youngest child was only a few months old, activists said.
Deputy Police Commissioner Basant Garg said the problem appeared to be outstanding pay due to the workers, but added that after three inquiries, police found "no evidence of any bonded labourers".
"We are now looking into the records of the brick kiln to see if there were any violations and will take action accordingly," he said.
Activists expressed frustration, and said authorities failed to understand the definition of debt bondage.
The workers in Bathinda were brought from neighbouring Uttar Pradesh state last October with advance payments of 5,000 to 10,000 rupees ($73-$146), said Gangambika Sekhar, an advocate with Volunteers for Social Justice, which came across the case on a field visit.
They worked 14 to 16 hours a day with no access to basic amenities, and their wages were withheld, with only a subsistence allowance paid.
"It was a clear case of bonded labour, but the police and district officials are reluctant to even acknowledge it exists," Sekhar said. "They think bonded labourers are kept in chains. The concept of debt bondage is still unfamiliar to them, so they deny it."
Almost 36 million people are enslaved worldwide, trafficked into brothels, forced into manual labour, stuck in debt bondage or born into servitude, according to the 2014 Global Slavery Index.
Almost half - 16 million - are in India. Many are lured from poor, rural areas with the promise of good jobs or marriage, but then sold into domestic work, prostitution, or the brick or textile industries. Most are unpaid or held in debt bondage.
Activists from Volunteers for Social Justice and other non-profit groups held a three-day protest last week in Bathinda, which is home to almost 200 brick kilns with about 200 workers each.
The workers and their children were sent back to their hometown earlier this week with their wages and are awaiting results of the police inquiry, Sekhar said.
"The officials continue to maintain there is no bonded labour, despite the evidence we present them," she said. "It comes down to the employer's word against that of the employees, and rarely are the employees believed."
(Reporting by Rina Chandran, editing by Alisa Tang)
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