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Businesses Working with Slavery Survivors in India Seek Ways to Offset COVID-19

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This story was originally published August 18, 2020 by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

CHENNAI, India, Aug 18 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Bhimavva Chalwadi, the supervisor of a laundry in Goa, is back behind the counter but it is not business as usual.

A trafficking survivor, 35-year-old Chalwadi has been looking for new clients since businesses started reopening as India gradually exited from an 11-week COVID-19 total lockdown, with many restrictions still in place across the country.

Daily wage laborers and homeless people wait to receive free food during an extended nationwide lockdown to slow the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in New Delhi, India, April 28, 2020. | REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui
Daily wage laborers and homeless people wait to receive free food during an extended nationwide lockdown to slow the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in New Delhi, India, April 28, 2020. | REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

Hotels were among the biggest clients of Swift Wash laundry, but with India's tourist haven still waiting for business to pick up, there is very little work for Chalwadi and her co-workers who are also all survivors of human trafficking.

"The laundry had never closed before, not even on a Sunday," said Chalwadi, who was "dedicated" to a temple as part of a banned custom that saw girls led into a life of prostitution and slavery in the name of serving Hindu gods.

"Now we do laundry for a COVID care center one day and are closed for the next three as there are no other orders. Our earnings have dropped and we spend every waking hour trying to think of how to get new clients."

The 14-year-old laundry was set up as social enterprise, one of many businesses with a mission to help society in India by providing economic opportunities for survivors of trafficking.

About 2,400 cases of human trafficking were reported in India in 2018, with nearly half of the victims aged under 18, according to the latest available government crime data.

But like many businesses the laundry has been hit by the multiple lockdowns as India's coronavirus cases crossed two million this month. India's lockdown has left millions jobless and crippled businesses, including start-ups and social enterprises that have pioneered solutions aimed at improving services from health, education and housing, to providing sustainable livelihoods.

Providing work and financial security is seen as a crucial link in the rehabilitation of trafficking survivors.

"Like everyone else, we are also struggling but we cannot afford to fail," said Ram Mohan, secretary of charity HELP that supports the Vimukthi Survivors Collective in southern Andhra Pradesh state.

"Their business of selling vadams (homemade snacks) to local hotels and messes along the busy highways has been severely hit. Their production has stopped but we are encouraging them to explore newer markets, including neighborhood stores."


Thousands of miles from Chalwadi in the northeastern state of Meghalaya, Ella Sangma has spent her lockdown days weaving traditional textiles at her home.

A weaver with the Impulse Social Enterprises, a company that sells clothes, bags, shoes and home furnishings, Sangma has kept her job and income during the pandemic.

Trafficked as a child, Sangma is a poster girl for the business which has helped her become financially independent.

Traditionally, rescued survivors have been put up in government and charity-run hostels and given vocational training in skills like embroidery and basket weaving but most have been unable to convert this into a sustainable livelihood.

But over the years, a few social enterprises have bucked the trend and provided survivors with a steady job and income, according to anti-trafficking campaigners.

"But the pandemic has changed the way we do business," said Hasina Kharbhih, founder of anti-trafficking charity Impulse NGO Network and the Impulse Social Enterprises. "For the first time we are doing crowdfunding to encourage people to 'support a mask' that can be distributed free to people who need them and support our employees. Innovation is the need of the hour."

In eastern city of Kolkata, Destiny Reflection took feedback from customers to diversify their product line that included tote bags and bookmarks among the most popular products.

"We are being told that there is increased demand for yoga mats since many people are choosing to exercise at home due to the pandemic and we are exploring that option," said Smarita Sengupta, founder of Destiny Reflection. "But it is still a scary situation for us. We are trying various things, including webinars to reach out to our network and customers to ensure we have orders to support the women who work here."

In the United States, David Grant, executive director of Sari Bari USA, a distributor of Kolkata-based Sari Bari Private Ltd, has found a demand for masks with schools reopening.

"We had a few samples tested and then got back to the company in India," Grant told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "We foresee a lengthy recovery time for the business. We have faced challenges like everyone else, including shipments being delayed and less spending by customers."


In India's commercial capital Mumbai, Kshamata Unlimited was scaling up their business when the pandemic hit.

"We were on course to launch our e-commerce operations when we had to stop abruptly due to the lockdown," said Bharathy Tahiliani, one of the directors of the company. "The entire model is under pressure, particularly since it is difficult to create a sensibility of ethical buying in the domestic market overnight. Also, people are happy to make donations but not many come forward to invest."

Entrepreneurs said the "culture of daan (charity)" in India continues unchanged, with people "feeling sorry" for survivors and donating but not spending on quality products produced by them or supporting their businesses.

"COVID donations for food and hygiene products have increased, but ethical product sales have been affected — and this pays our workers' salaries," said Sengupta.

Salaries have been a concern for Chalwadi too, who after her rescue two decades ago is now president of the Goa Survivors Association.

While Swift Wash paid all its employees through the lockdown, the prospect of salary cuts across businesses are looking more likely.

"The struggle for survival has become tougher for both the employees and the business. We don't need donations but work orders to survive," Chalwadi said.

Reporting by Anuradha Nagaraj @AnuraNagaraj; Editing by Belinda Goldsmith.

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