A group of 14 Indian workers rescued from borewell digging companies during the coronavirus lockdown in South India have received a rare payout after being held in slavery as investigations continue, officials said on Wednesday.

Four complaints against individual owners of small borewell digging companies are being investigated for late payment to workers and labour exploitation, according to TG Vinay, the administrative head of Madurai district in Tamil Nadu state.

The workers were abandoned near petrol pumps on the outskirts of Madurai town when the lockdown began in March and only rescued after sending a video to their families about 2,000 km away with landmarks to show their location.

“They sent video messages to their homes in Jharkhand [state],” said Sahaya Philomin Raj, advocate of human rights charity Institute of Development Education, Action and Studies. “We were contacted and managed to trace them with the help of the video clues and got someone to translate their story. We realised that they had been sold to the borewell rig owners.”

Dire straits

Millions of migrant workers have faced the brunt of India’s stringent lockdown, with most losing jobs, wages and struggling to get back to their homes, some dying on the way. Some workers trapped in forced labour have remained trapped in brick kilns, farms and rice mills where they have continue to work, according to anti-slavery campaigners.

India outlawed bonded labour four decades ago, but some employers still trap people from marginalised communities into working without pay in fields, brick kilns, rice mills, brothels or as domestic workers to pay off family debts.

In their complaint to the police, the workers said when the lockdown began the employers abandoned them with no money. “An agent brought me to work here. It is the first time I left my village in the hope of earning better,” Sandeep Sadhu Atla told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a phone interview from Madurai where he is waiting to be sent home. “But we worked endlessly and were only given some money off-and-on to buy essentials like soap or oil.”

After the rescue and police complaints, owners of the companies agreed to pay overdue salaries to the workers. Atla received Rs 62,000 and is expecting more compensation under a government scheme set up in 2016 to provide Rs 100,000 or more to people rescued from slavery to stop them falling back into debt bondage.

India has eight million modern slaves, according to Australia-based Walk Free’s Global Slavery Index, and bonded labour is the most prevalent form of slavery in the country. The India government says 300,000 people have been pulled out of slavery since 1976 and is aiming to free millions more.

But to date, only 500 slavery survivors have received an initial payment of Rs 20,000 they are eligible for on their release and no one the full amount, government data shows.

The lack of compensation leaves slavery survivors vulnerable when they return to their villages because they struggle to find work, forcing them to take out new loans, campaigners said.

Kandasamy Krishnan, head of the National Adivasi Solidarity Council – an organisation that works on labour rights issues – said it was “very, very rare that back wages” were given.

This article first appeared on Thomson Reuters News Foundation.