Lessons from a hero’s story

Iqbal Masih fought against bonded child labour until his death in 1995

Lessons from  a hero’s story


n March 23, President Arif Alvi conferred the Sitara-i-Shujaat award on Iqbal Masih. The citation said he had fought courageously against bonded child labour until his death on April 16, 1995. In his message for Child Labour Day on June 12, 2021, the president had referred to him as “our child hero and a great son of the soil”.

Iqbal Masih was born to a Christian family in Muridke. He worked at a carpet factory and was not sent to a school. His siblings, two brothers and two sisters, also did not go to school. After his father separated from his mother and married again, Iqbal and two of his siblings started living with a maternal uncle. Their other siblings remained with their father. The family was excommunicated by the church over this marriage.

Iqbal Masih worked very hard at the factory. He also became a powerful voice against child labour and may have saved thousands of children from it.

According to a family account, Iqbal was about five years old when he and his brother Ashraf began working at a carpet factory. He worked to pay off the loan his father had taken and the money his mother had borrowed in his name.

One day, he and his colleagues participated in a protest rally against bonded labour. The diminutive boy carried on his brother’s shoulder as he raised slogans for abolition of debt bondage, inspired many, including Ehsan Ullah Khan, the Bonded Labour Liberation Front (BLLF) chairman.

Iqbal later learned that the Supreme Court had banned bonded child labour. Emboldened, he fled from the factory he had been working at and started living at the BLLF. He was offered an education and completed four classes in two years.

In addition to travelling extensively throughout the country, he was taken abroad to raise awareness about the problem of bonded child labour. On Easter Sunday, April 16, 1995, he was shot dead. The murder has remained an unsolved crime.

His younger brother, Veryaam, is now married. He had been an agricultural labourer and heavily in debt. His peshgi ran into hundreds of thousands of rupees. Iqbal’s, by comparison, had been a few thousand rupees. Veryaam’s wife and sons, Gulfam and Shamail, were thus forced to work at the landowner’s house and cultivate the land without a hope of ever being free.

On March 23, when Iqbal’s elder brother received the Sitara-i-Shujaat, the cash that goes with the award was presented to his younger brother, Veryaam. The money was paid to the landlord and Veryaam and his family were released. A week later, Veryaam was working for another landlord from whom he had borrowed some money for routine household expenses.

The Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1992 defines bonded labour as “any labour or service rendered under the bonded labour system of forced, or partly forced, labour under which a debtor enters”. In some cases, the worker or his family receives an advance (peshgi) from creditors; in other cases, the debt is passed from one generation to the next.

Bonded child labour has been reported in agriculture, brick kilns, tanning and the carpet industry.

Although it is illegal in Pakistan to employ anyone under the age of 14, according to the national child labour survey conducted in 1996, 3.3 million children were trapped in child labour.

In addition to paying off the loan his father had taken, Iqbal Masih worked from dawn to dusk to pay off the money his mother had borrowed in his name.

There has been no official child labour data for the last 20 years. Munawar Sultana, the national project coordinator for the ILO’s Asia Regional Child Labour Project in Asia (ARC), says the government should ensure regular collection of child labour data and take proactive legislative and non-legislative measures, including the convergence of social assistance and protection programmes for destitute families, to address the threat of child labour in Pakistan.

Globally, bonded labour was outlawed by the 1956 United Nations Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, Slave Trade and Institutions and Practises Similar to Slavery. Pakistan has ratified the ILO Convention 29 on bonded labour and Convention 105 on forced labour and its abolition. Article 11(3) of the Constitution of Pakistan prohibits forced labour. In line with the constitutional guarantee, debt bondage is prohibited by the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act 1992 and the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Rules, 1995. The National Policy and Plan of Action for the Abolition of Bonded Labour and Rehabilitation of Freed Bonded Labourers (2001) is another policy framework to combat bonded labour.

Sindh enacted the Sindh Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 2015, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa promulgated the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 2015. The Punjab introduced the Punjab Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1992 (Amendment, 2012) and another special law, the Punjab Prohibition of Child Labour at Brick Kilns Act, 2016. Recently, Gilgit-Baltistan promulgated the Gilgit-Baltistan Bonded/ Forced labour system (Abolition) Act, 2020.

The Punjab has established district vigilance committees to monitor the implementation of the BLSA. Mohammad Shahid, a senior law officer at the Labour and Human Resource Department says there is need for capacity building in the committees.

The government is also taking steps to improve school enrolment, including providing financial incentives through Khidmat ATM cards to vulnerable children and children involved in the worst forms of child labour.

According to UNICEF Annual Report 2018, provincial governments have developed key policies to enrol 600,000 out-of-school children in five years.

Enforcement remains a problem. Although the Punjab has enacted three laws against child labour, rules of business for these laws have not been notified.

Tajdar Hashmi, a member of the National Commission on the Rights of Child, recommends raising public awareness about the issue through the media. The media tend to cover the issue of bonded child labour only when it is sensational.

It will take a profound change in societal attitudes and actions to protect the rights of bonded child labourers. It will also take strong political will.

The author is a human rights activist and leadership consultant. She is a member of the National Commission on the Rights of the Child. She received her doctorate in Leadership Studies from the University of San Diego, California. She tweets at: @RubinaFBhatti

Lessons from a hero’s story