By Anuradha Nagaraj and Roli Srivastava
CHENNAI/MUMBAI, India, Dec 27 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Violence faced by more than 50 workers rescued from a ginger farm in southern India has prompted calls for authorities across the country to step up efforts in 2019 to end modern-day slavery.
India outlawed bonded labour in 1976, but unscrupulous employers continue to dupe people into working without wages to pay off debts - a practice that can trap them for years or even decades, according to anti-trafficking experts.
They often face abuse, but accounts of "unimaginable violence" against 52 people rescued last week from a ginger farm in Karnataka state were particularly shocking, said Mary Prathima of the charity International Justice Mission (IJM).
"In all our years of work, we normally come across a few people in a large group who have faced physical abuse and the rest are subject to very long hours of work," she said.
"But here everyone single person - including children who described the 'smaller sticks' they were beaten with - was brutally abused."
Campaigners urged the government to carry out an accurate survey to determine the number of people trapped in bonded labour throughout the country, and then launch a crackdown.
India identified more than 135,000 bonded workers in its 2011 census, while the Australian charity Walk Free Foundation put the number at eight million in its 2018 Global Slavery Index.
"The suffering of the workers rescued last week is shocking, and it is high time the government started identifying those trapped in bondage through surveys," said Umi Daniel, regional head of Aide et Action International, a Swiss non-profit.
The labourers had been trapped on the ginger farm for three years, working without wages, and reported being lashed with a horse whip and locked up at night without access to toilets, said Prathima, who is working with police on the investigation.
If their abusers are taken to court, it will be an exception - even more so if they are convicted.
Less than half of the more than 8,000 human trafficking cases reported in 2016 were filed in court by the police, and the conviction rate for those that did go to trial was 28 percent, according to government data.
The low rate of conviction means that employers have little worry of being caught even when they abuse bonded labourers such as those rescued last week, said a senior official with the central government.
"Like in other criminal cases, even in these, the perpetrators had no fear of the law," the official said on condition of anonymity, because he was not authorised to speak to media.
At least 30 percent of those working in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu states in industries including brick kilns, fish farms and rock quarries are bonded labourers, according to recent studies by IJM.
"The government needs to acknowledge the problem and do more than sporadically take action," said Kiran Kamal Prasad, founder of the non-profit Jeevika, which identifies and rescues bonded labourers in Karnataka.
"We hope there will be a crackdown in 2019," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
(Editing by Jared Ferrie. Please credit the 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)
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