Combating bonded labour

Brick kiln workers remain trapped in a vicious cycle

Combating bonded labour


onded labour has been the subject of numerous debates for quite some time now. There has also been much debate in various parts of the world on how best to eliminate it. Yet, the menace continues to plague Pakistan to this day.

According to a report by Al-Jazeera, more than 4 million people in Pakistan are currently working as bonded labourers. Most of them work in brick kilns, mines, factories and the agriculture sector. About 70 percent of them are children. The Walk Free Foundation, an international organisation campaigning against slavery, has ranked Pakistan as third on its list of 167 countries with entrenched slavery. Most people forced to work as bonded labourers end up working under extremely harsh conditions. This is also called modern-day slavery.

Despite Pakistan being a signatory to the International Labour Organisation Convention No 29 on Forced Labour (ratified in 1957), ILO Convention No. 105 on Abolition of Forced Labour (ratified in 1960), brick kilns and mills all over the country are continuing the practice.

Pakistan has also ratified the 1956 UN Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery as well as the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

According to data provided by the Bonded Labour Liberation Front, Pakistan, a non-government organisation that aims to eradicate bonded labour in the country, there are about 30,000 functional brick kilns in Pakistan. Each of these employs 200 to 250 workers (pathair). About 98 percent of these workers are working under debt bondage.

The scribe visited one of these kilns, known as bhattas, on the outskirts of Sheikupura. Rows of workers were bent over the arduous task of brick-making.

Brick making is a tough task. It involves cutting and shaping of mud and requires frequent watering and soaking. The clay is first prepared for moulding and then levelled by splashing water and sand onto it. I saw weary children clustered together as they worked tirelessly to help their families.

The mud is shaped into clay balls and then transferred into brick moulds. The bricks are then tilted up and down before being stacked in rows of ten to calculate a worker’s wage for the day. After the bricks are transported to the kiln and covered with a layer of keri, they are baked in the kiln. Finally, the baked bricks are taken out, cooled and sent for marketing and storage.

Zainab Bibi, a mother of five, spoke about her job. She said her family had borrowed money from the kiln owner two years ago to pay off a loan and had been trapped in a debt cycle. This is how the peshgi (advance) system works: workers take an advance from the employer and have to work for him as long as it takes to repay the amount they have borrowed. They end up borrowing more to pay off current bills. This leads to longer working hours to pay off the new debt. They are stuck in a vicious cycle of debt that never ends. Quitting is usually not an option since, for many, working at the brick kiln is their only possible source of income.

When a family works at a brick kiln, they are not paid individually. They are paid as a team, according to the number of bricks they make and the payment is made to the head of the family. This usually means that the women do not even receive their share. Rashid, 16, explained the terms of his employment to us. He stated that he worked every day at the kiln and was paid every Thursday. The wage depended on the number of bricks he made. “Sometimes due to bad weather, the output is meagre. We do not get paid for that day. It all depends on how much work gets done.” At most brick kilns, a working shift is eight hours long. Most workers work non-stop for the eight hours under the harsh glaring sun in summers and in the cold in winters.

According to data provided by the Bonded Labour Liberation Front, a majority of the bonded labour in Pakistan is engaged at brick kilns (about 7,890,000). The minimum wage limit set by the Punjab government is Rs 1,850 per 1,000 ordinary bricks. However, most workers are paid Rs 800-850. Muhammad Awais, 17, said sometimes the workers do not even get paid for the bricks they work on. The reason cited was a declaration by the employer that he was unable to pay the money for whatever reason.

Speaking to TNS on the subject, Mahar Safdar Ali, a senior member of the Bonded Labour Liberation Front, Pakistan, said, “over the past few years, we have seen several cases where the courts have made rulings to help bonded labourers. However, the problems lie in unreliable enforcement of the laws.” He also said, “The workers usually do not have CNICs. As a result, they cannot initiate litigation. Trapped in debt, they continue to work and are deprived of their legal entitlement.”

Pakistan does, in fact, have several laws in place to protect the rights of workers as well as children. Article 3 of the constitution states that the state has to ensure the exercise of fundamental rights by citizens and to eliminate exploitation. It was these fundamental principles of the constitution that the Supreme Court applied in its landmark judgment in the Darshan Masih case (PLD 1990 SC 513). It ruled that women and children could not be forced to work, and that the peshgi system must be abolished. The government then responded by legislating the Bonded Labour System Abolition Act, 1992. The Federal Shariah Court’s ruling on the matter (October 2005) is also significant, because the employers of bonded labour had sought to defend their practices. Their plea was rejected. The Supreme Court of Pakistan also issued directives to combat bonded labour in 2006.

However, it is clear that these laws and rulings have not had the desired effect. Asked about the reason behind it, Syeda Ghulam Fatima, general secretary of the Bonded Labour Liberation Front, Pakistan, says, “We cannot rely on judicial activism alone. We need strong laws passed by the parliament to completely eradicate the practice of bonded labour. Many of the laws are weak or not enforced in their true spirit.”

Lack of basic education combined with a lack of awareness of their rights among the workers and the successive governments’ failure to enforce the labour laws, has prevented real progress.

*Names have been changed to protect identities

The writer is a freelance journalist. She mostly writes on human rights, literature and lifestyle. Her debut novel, Our Tainted Souls is available all over Pakistan. She tweets at @MinaalMaan and can be reached at minaalmohsin

Combating bonded labour