Tricia Steele Boutros '00

A Force Against Forced Labor
June 1, 2002

 

Tricia Steele Boutros '00

It was twilight at the gem bazaar in the bustling south Indian city of Trichy, and Tricia Steele Boutros '00 walked alone down a shadowy alley, peering in the dark doorways. Pedestrians stared, but she continued on until she found a gem dealer in one of the back offices.

Boutros was helping conduct an investigation for the International Justice Mission (IJM), a human-rights group concerned with the issue of bonded labor. For the past four days, she had worked with a team interviewing 115 workers in the gem industry, workers snared in a centuries-old system that had them pledged to their employers after taking out a loan. A recent U.S. Department of Labor report noted that nearly 2.6 million Indian workers are still bonded to their employers.

"There's a whole world that exists down these alleyways," says Boutros, brushing a mosquito from her neck one afternoon in Trichy, 200 miles southwest of Chennai, the city formerly known as Madras. "But frankly, I feel safer here than I do in my neighborhood in Chicago."

The IJM is a Christian-based organization that tackles such issues as forced prostitution in Thailand, police corruption in Kenya, and illegal detention in Haiti. Staffed by U.S. legal professionals, and inspired by the biblical mandate to seek freedom for the oppressed, IJM sends teams to the developing world to document the abuses. It then works with local attorneys and authorities to win release for the victims.

Boutros, who majored in philosophy and religion at Duke, spent her junior year at Oxford University in England. There, in a seminar on the Christian author C.S. Lewis, she met her future husband, Victor. Both are law students at the University of Chicago.

A spring-break trip in March took the couple to the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, where 61 million live in sprawling cities like Chennai, and in sparsely populated villages like those outside of Trichy. There the team visited gem workers hunched over polishing machines in thatched-roof huts.

Though bonded labor was outlawed in India twenty-six years ago, efforts to eradicate the practice have been slowed by bureaucratic lethargy, entrenched commercial interests, widespread illiteracy, and a banking system that won't provide loans to the landless poor. Individuals in need of immediate cash to pay for medical care, a child's education, or house repairs turn to the local business owner, or mudalali. He gives the loan, with the understanding that a family member will work for the lender until it is paid off.

Interviews with the workers in Trichy found that they typically earn $4.20 a week for fifty-four hours of work, shaping the uncut chunks of manufactured glass into multi-faceted gems. Few had paid back any principal on the loans and had worked for the mudalali--their employer, banker, and master--for an average of 6.2 years.

Though many feared retaliation and the loss of their sole source of income, these workers had mustered the courage to sign an affidavit detailing the economic arrangement with their employer. One seventeen-year-old girl, for example, had been polishing gems for $4.25 a week for a gem dealer who had loaned her father $106 two years ago to finance her brother's college education. A thirty-six-year-old father was working off $275, six-year-old loan to pay for the delivery of his child.

The affidavits attesting to the financial arrangements, packaged with digital photos and videotaped statements, would later be submitted in a detailed report to local authorities in Tamil Nadu, which was among the first Indian states to set up a system to free the workers. The authorities have used these reports as evidence to cancel the illegal debt, free the worker from bondage, and begin a process that will grant the worker $400 for job training.

"We have some responsibility to give time to help people who are suffering outside of our immediate community," Boutros says. "Proximity is not a morally relevant category, and God cares about people of different religions and castes."

Before leaving for India, Boutros said she wasn't sure she could truly understand the plight of those human-rights victims without actually going there so see the conditions under which they lived, and to hear their stories.

Waiting in the airport on her way back in March, she reflects. "It's good to put yourself in a position where you can care about something besides getting good grades and getting a good job, because that can be a bondage all of its own. It helps to get outside the little world you live in. I'd rather spend my time caring about the people we met this week."

 

Wilson is a freelance writer in New York City.