For six years, Noshir* has labored more than 50 hours a week polishing gems in a thatched-roof hut in the small village in southern India where he lives. He is trying to repay the $275 he had to borrow to pay for the delivery of his child. At $4.20 a week, it might be another five years before he can expect to be free of the debt to his mudalali -- his employer, banker ... and master. Or, he might never be free.
Bonded labor in India was outlawed in 1976, but the centuries-old economic system continues largely unabated, effectively enslaving children and adults for much of their lives.
Baylor alumnus Victor Boutros, who received his BA in philosophy in 1998, sat with Noshir in mid-March to hear his story of long hours, poor working conditions and crushing poverty. It was one of many stories -- all disturbingly similar -- that Boutros, now a second-year student at the University of Chicago Law School, heard during a physically and emotionally draining week in the state of Tamil Nadu.
Yet, after nine hours of interviewing workers in India's synthetic gem industry and hearing the indignities of this form of indentured servitude, Boutros felt exhilarated. He was in the fourth day of a human rights inquiry conducted by an International Justice Mission (IJM) team into the abuses of bonded labor. Already during this trip, the team had documented 115 cases of abuse with affidavits and videotaped interviews.
After spending much of his academic career looking into the philosophical issues surrounding the existence of God and evil in the world, Boutros now was half a world away from his hometown of Dallas, living out the biblical mandate to seek freedom for the oppressed.
"So much evil in the world is preventable," says Boutros, 25, as he sits one afternoon in a dimly lit room under whirring fans in the south India city of Trichy. "I have no illusions of bringing heaven to earth, but this is one good thing worth doing. God shows up when we offer our small acts of obedience."
The affidavits detail how the workers had taken out loans from the mudalali for expenses such as emergency medical care, education for a son or wedding for a daughter. Banks do not lend money to nonlandowners, so when laborers are in need of cash, their only recourse is through the mudalali. The laborers may not work for anyone else until the debt is repaid. They work for reduced pay -- as much as 50 percent below market wage -- earning about $4 a week for 50-plus hours of work. Even after an average of six years, few have paid back any principal on the loans. In the close-knit society of these small villages, the mudalali are both needed and feared. The threat of violence and sense of obligation keep the workers from rebelling.
The reports gathered by the IJM team will be given to the district collector in Tamil Nadu, who will conduct his own investigation and has the authority to issue certificates to free the workers from their loans. The government then provides $400 per person for job training and allows the laborers to seek work elsewhere. Children freed from bonded labor may attend a government-run school for the rehabilitation of child laborers.
Since IJM began investigating the abuses in 1997, more than 1,000 bonded laborers from Tamil Nadu have been interviewed and documented. IJM has successfully released many of these laborers by developing good working relationships with Tamil Nadu authorities. They have come to trust the detailed evidence submitted by the investigators, says IJM attorney Kristin Romens, who led the investigation in March. India has laws on its books forbidding bonded labor and regulating hazardous industries and child labor. Because the practice of bonded labor is so widespread and entrenched, however, mobilizing the government manpower and resources necessary to implement the law has been a challenge.
"We have found that when provided with solid evidence backed by trustworthy investigative techniques, government officials often show a willingness to address the issue," Romen says. "Co-operation is the key to our strategy."
Boutros went on the human rights mission this spring at a time of escalating tension on the India subcontinent. While he was there, Muslims and Hindus clashed over a contested holy site in the north, armies conducted war games along the Kashmir border and terrorists in Pakistan bombed a church, killing five, including two Americans.
The trip to India provided crucial field experience for Boutros, a philosophy scholar pursuing a legal career in human rights. Upon graduation from Baylor in 1998, Boutros earned a master's in moral development at Harvard University. Later, he worked on a book contrasting the Christianity of C.S. Lewis with Sigmund Freud's views on materialism. From Harvard, he went to Oxford University and completed a master's in philosophical theology.
In December 1999, while contemplating a career in academia, Boutros attended a presentation by Gary Haugen, IJM founder. A former civil rights attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice, Haugen talked about his work with the United Nations' 1994 investigation of genocide in Rwanda. He addressed the issue of God's presence in a world filled with evil.
"I think Christians sometimes feel paralyzed by the overwhelming evil in the world," Boutros says. "Gary provided a basis of hope rooted in God's character, that we serve a God who takes sides and who has asserted himself to be on the side of justice. Like most things God cares about, he could do it himself, but he chooses to use his people."
After his year at Oxford, Boutros entered law school, intent on learning the practical skills needed to put his Christian beliefs into action. His Egyptian-born father had fled to America in the 1960s to become a physician in a land where Christians could practice their religion without fear. Boutros believes he can become a vehicle for God's work in the legal profession. He will intern with the U.S. Justice Department's civil rights division this summer and hopes to work there upon receiving his law degree. In the future, he also wants to join IJM.
"We need to help the church recover its passion for justice," he says. "There is terrible suffering in the world, and this is a tangible way to manifest how God's justice works. There is nothing more satisfying than doing something God cares so deeply about."
Boutros' passion for justice has brought him far from his north Dallas roots. He acknowledges being oblivious to many of the world's problems while growing up. His awakening came at Baylor, where his studies as a philosophy major brought him face-to-face with the world's suffering and the central question of how God can allow people to suffer. In his undergraduate years, he was involved in the establishment of the William Carey Crane Scholars program, sponsored by Baylor's Institute for Faith and Learning (IFL). Among other things, the program sponsors events in which students discuss how to apply Christian beliefs to their vocations.
Dr. Michael Beaty, professor of philosophy and IFL director, mentored Boutros and describes him as a student with energy, discipline and creativity.
"He is a person who looked for coherence between faith and the rest of his life and had a sense of calling," Dr. Beaty says. "He kept himself open to God and has let his passion for learning and social justice navigate him through the world."
In India, IJM has focused on the bonded labor system in the state of Tamil Nadu, which includes the teeming metropolis of Chennai (formerly known as Madras) and hundreds of tiny villages on the dusty plains of the continent's southern tip. It wasn't until 1995 that India's Supreme Court set up a commission to investigate the bonded labor system and establish a means to combat it, Boutros says. The system is linked closely to the Indian caste system and has its roots in rural communities of extreme poverty and high levels of illiteracy. Reform efforts have been slowed by bureaucratic lethargy, an entrenched commercial elite and an uneducated workforce with needs for immediate cash, Boutros says.
Exactly how many Indians are in bondage today remains unknown because it's such a part of the nation's underground economy. Based on widely diverging figures from studies in India, the U.S. Department of Labor estimates that between 353,000 and 2.6 million workers are bonded in jobs as diverse as making bricks, rolling beedi cigarettes, polishing gems, crushing rocks at stone quarries and manufacturing matches. Some parents pledge their children as collateral for loans. On Boutros' first day in Tamil Nadu, the team interviewed 21 children, some as young as 9, who were selling snacks at one of Chennai's popular tourist attractions, earning as little as 25 cents a day. Some of the children even lived with their mudalali.
During his trip, Boutros learned firsthand about the synthetic gem trade after taking a six-hour overnight train ride to the bustling city of Trichy, where the industry thrives. Boutros toured the alleyways of the gem bazaar and met with workers hunched over polishing machines in back rooms, while dealers sat out front, laying out their gleaming gems for buyers who haggled over prices. The next day, Boutros traveled 17 miles on a pot-holed, single-lane road to a village where women carried water jugs on their heads and stacks of husked rice stood 20 feet high alongside the road. Several mudalali had gem-polishing operations humming in the small huts of the village.
Boutros also spent several days interviewing laborers who had mustered the courage to sign an affidavit detailing their work situations. One 17-year-old girl, for example, has been polishing gems for $4.25 a week to repay a $106 loan her father had taken two years ago to finance her brother's college education. A 33-year-old woman told Boutros she took an advance of $35 in 1980, and 22 years later, still hasn't been able to repay it.
After one interview with a young man, Boutros paused, struck by the man's age. He had been born in 1976 - the same year as Boutros.
"How desperate I would be if I were on the other side of the table," he says. "Slavery is alive and well in the world today, but there is something we can do. And sometimes all it takes is showing up."
Wilson is a senior writer for The Journal News in White Plains, N.Y. He traveled with the IJM team to bring Baylor Magazine readers this story.