You might not know it, but there are more people living in slavery now than at any time in history.
On Anti-Slavery Day, on Oct. 18, this story of how one young man was able to escape slavery — before going on to help other boys escape too — shows just how many obstacles survivors face.
During his 9-month escape from the factory where he was forced to live and work, Manikandan had to take huge risks, relying on strangers to help him along the way.
With the help of an international organisation working to rescue slaves, International Justice Mission, he was eventually able to get help, reunite with his family, and alert the authorities. To help protect Manikandan's identity, some geographic and personal details haven't been included.
This is Manikandan's story.
In November last year, the now 21-year-old Manikandan took one last look around the dingy factory where he’d been trapped as a slave for nine years and decided to escape.
He was far away from home, and to escape he would have to travel across two states within the south Asian country he had been trafficked in.
But with the owner and his wife distracted by a local festival, Manikandan knew his chance was now or never – so he took it. Before leaving, he promised other younger boys still trapped in the factory: “I will come back for you.”
The factory, which produced sweets, had taken his teenage years. Manikandan was just 11 years old when he was trafficked into bonded labour in 2009.
Trapped in cramped, hot conditions, Manikandan and other young boys worked 13-hour days. They were beaten with sticks or burnt with an iron hot rod whenever they made mistakes.
Out of desperation, Manikandan made the daring decision to escape. His 9-month journey relied on the kindness of strangers and part-time work to help him get by.
When he finally arrived home, his mother hugged and kissed him when they saw each other for the first time in almost a decade. “I’m so happy!” she cried. She told him that food had not satisfied her for the whole time he was away but that “today we will have a feast as my son has returned in good health”.
Manikandan pictured with his friends (International Justice Mission)
Manikandan was thrilled to be home, but he hadn't forgotten his promise to his friends back at the factory. He was determined to free them.
He and his parents reported the case to one of the local partners of anti-slavery organisation International Justice Mission, who then started working with the non-profit and district officials to stage a rescue operation.
One week later he led local officials back to the factory to rescue his friends. The team arrived at the factory and freed the three boys still working there, all aged between 14 and 16.
The factory owner and his wife were arrested on the same day and charged under the country’s anti-slavery and child protection laws.
The factory owner had originally recruited boys from Manikandan’s village by giving their families loans of approximately £22. He then trafficked the boys to another state.
Under this version of modern slavery, known as debt bondage, Manikandan was made to work to “repay the debt”. He and the other boys worked from dawn until dusk. Manikandan told International Justice Mission that he was subjected to verbal abuse that made him feel worthless. It had seemed impossible to escape.
All of the rescued boys have now been given certificates which set them free from the false debts the slave owner used to control them. The boys have new clothes and additional funds to help in their ongoing rehabilitation, and they have been reunited with their families.
International Justic Mission, the organisation that freed him, has worked with police to rescue over 50,000 people from slavery since it began in 1997. But there are millions more people trapped in these conditions.
The UN estimates that over 40 million people are currently being held as slaves. They are being abused, beaten, raped, and threatened in factories, boats, brick kilns, and brothels around the world every day.
While slavery might be tragically prevelant still today, there are also more ways than ever for countries to start clamp down on it.
Slavery is illegal almost everywhere now, and what practitioners from International Justice Mission say they’ve found is that when you work with police and governments to make sure that these laws are enforced, slavery decreases dramatically.
When that happens, the results can be significant: the organisation says it has seen reductions in slavery of up to 86% in places where they’ve worked.
Globally, we are beginning to see fundamental changes in how global governments, corporates, and local law enforcement respond to this issue.
We’ve seen that when courts prosecute slave owners the deterrent of being caught and punished is leading to dramatic decreases in violence, exploitation, and slavery.
Change is happening, and it's possible. But more needs to happen. Let's be the generation that brings an end to this brutal injustice.
This story was contributed by the International Justice Mission.