For three months, Rohan, 9, spent 12 hours a day glueing spangles on to glass bangles in a dingy room in New Delhi.
The boy and his brother, 6, were taken to a rundown residential building in India’s capital in January.
They were rescued last week with 43 other children employed illegally. Prayas Childline, a charity working to end child trafficking and rehabilitate its victims, received a tip-off about the workshops.
It accompanied the police on raids to rescue the children. All are natives of Bihar, one of India’s poorest states.
“We worked from 10am to 10pm. I got an infection on my face because of the chemicals,” said Rohan, whose face has turned black as a result.
Mukesh Kumar is a member of Prayaas Childline.
"It was a horrifying sight. The children were working silently in dark, dingy rooms. The fans were switched off even though the city is witnessing record sweltering heat," he told The National.
“They were not given food unless they finished the day’s target and were forced to squat for 12 hours. They slept on mattresses on the floor.”
Some of the children working at the bangle factory had been there for more than a year, despite the nationwide lockdown imposed in March last year. They had not seen their parents since 2019, were allowed to speak to them only once a week and had no access to the outside world.
Mr Kumar said the moment the workshop operators learnt of the raid, they locked the boys in bathrooms and fled. Police are looking for them.
Child trafficking is widespread in India but the problem has become worse because of the economic slump caused by the pandemic.
Even before Covid-19, about 12.9 million Indian children from 7 to 17 years of age were engaged in some form of work, according to the International Labour Organisation, with 20 per cent in hazardous jobs. Most work in agriculture, but others are employed as domestic help, or in small restaurants and workshops.
India prohibits the employment of any child below 14 years in commercial establishments or in hazardous workplaces such as brick kilns.
The UN said recently that the pandemic is increasing the use of underage labour in the country, which has the world’s largest child population, 472 million.
Many children have been forced to leave school because of the pandemic. At the same time India’s vast army of daily-wage earners bore the brunt of unemployment, forcing some to approach middlemen to find work for their children.
Bihar has one of the highest levels of child trafficking. Poor families sell their children or hand them over to agents to work in cities, where they are sexually abused for money or sent to workshops such as those raided in New Delhi.
Rohan said he and his brother had no idea what work they would be doing when they made the 11-hour bus journey from Bihar to Delhi with an “uncle” three months earlier.
"We did not know what we had to do," he told The National.
They said the man had promised their father, a daily-wage labourer at a brick kiln, a monthly salary of 4,500 rupees ($61) for each of them.
“The agents are bringing children from remote places to every big city and they get placed further through sub-agents. The children are tutored in such a way that it appears that the agents are their uncle and not traffickers,” Prayas Childline’s director, Vishwajeet Ghoshal, said.
Dinesh, 15, started working in the bangle factory after coming to Delhi in 2019, when his father died and he had to support his mother and two younger siblings.
When India went into lockdown, he wanted to return to his family in Gaya, Bihar, but was forced to stay put by his employer despite no longer being paid.
"He did not let me go home. He gave me food and clothes, but I wanted to go home," Dinesh told The National.
“I did not like the job but I had to earn for my mother and siblings.”