Meet Manki. His weathered face breaks into a smile when
he greets you. But behind his grin and friendly demeanour, there’s a darker
story to tell. 

Manki is from a tiny village in the district of Latehar in Jharkhand
state, in eastern India. Forty two years old, he lives with his seven children,
wife and mother in a mud house of four rooms. 

To find work, he and his fellow villagers often travel large
distances to earn money.  “If a
contractor tells us that we’ll get higher wages in a city far from our village,
we go,” he says, “This makes us vulnerable and can sometimes lead to bad

This is exactly what happened earlier this year when Manki
and ten of his neighbours were convinced by an agent to leave their homes and
work on a construction site in Bengaluru in South India - more than 800 miles

Modern slavery

They had been promised a place to live, good food to eat and
Rs 440 (just over £4 or US$7) for a 12-hour day – a fortune
for Manki and his fellow villagers.

But when they arrived in Bengaluru, the 11 men were first
placed in one small room in a high-walled compound which was constantly guarded
– and only paid Rs 120 (£1.17/US$2) for a day’s work.

“At the end of the month, they also only paid for 10 days of
work even though we had worked the entire month,” Manki says. “They didn’t pay
us any cash either - they transferred the money into a bank account they had
made for us but none of us knew how to withdraw the money.”

The living conditions, meanwhile, were terrible. “We felt
like we were in jail,” Manki says, “The food was terrible and they would not
let us leave the compound. Even when one of the other labourers got sick, they
would not let him leave.”

If the labourers complained, the contractor threatened them
and said they wouldn’t be paid.

Last straw

For three months,
Manki and his fellow labourers worked until they dropped. They could see no way

Then Manki
heard his mother was sick: “I told the employer that I wanted to go home
to look after my mother but he didn’t allow me. That’s when I thought about
running away. I thought to myself that if I don’t go now my mother will die, so
what’s the use of going back home once my mother is dead?”

He had kept a small amount of money back from the journey to
Bangalore and, with the help of his friends, managed to run away from the
compound and use the money to travel the hundreds of miles home. 

Who are you calling helpless!

Meanwhile, his village had been listening to Majboor
Kisko Bola!
, our programme about bonded labour.

The show’s
title means “Who are you calling helpless!” and it aims to increase awareness
about bonded labour, what causes it, how it can be prevented and how people can
take action if they’ve been conned. 

villages like Manki’s where there is no TV or radio, a recording of the show is
played during weekly listener clubs where facilitators also lead discussions
about the issues each episode raises.

When Manki
arrived home from Bengaluru, he shared his horrific experiences with the
village elders, his family and neighbours, and started listening to the
programme along with them.

That’s when
the idea struck Manki. He noted the helpline number that’s announced in every
episode and appears on every wall painting advertising the show – and made that
one call which would lead to his friends’ freedom. 

Media Action team in New Delhi followed up Manki’s call, and informed our
partner organisation in Lateher, LEADS. With their help, Manki filed a police

Within a
week the 10 remaining labourers were rescued and brought back home. Not only
that, thanks to the police intervention, they also got their full wages.

Manki and the friends he helped to rescue.

story is noteworthy not just because of its inherent drama; it also demonstrates
the power of communication. It shows how a programme can create awareness,
stimulate discussion and empower people to act.

listening to the programme, Manki and his villagers are not majboor
(helpless) anymore. They
tell us they feel less vulnerable to exploitation because they are armed with
information and are more confident of their bargaining powers.

As Manki
says, “If I have benefited from this programme, I’m sure others will too. If
anyone else needs help or is stuck somewhere, this call number will be of

There must
be hundreds of Mankis in the villages of India. We hope this project can expand
so that many others can feel they are no longer helpless.


Majboor Kisko Bola! is produced with funding from The Google Foundation.

Related links

bonded labour in India

Media Action's work in India

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