Examining Brick Kiln Slavery in Pakistan

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ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Slavishly laboring for 14 hours a day, six days a week and 10 months a year describes the life of Gul, a Christian Punjabi man, who works at a brick kiln outside of Lahore, Pakistan. He is one of possibly 20 million bonded debt laborers living in slavery in Pakistan, working for pennies and under abhorrent conditions.

Modern-Day Slaves

Laborers like Gul usually sell themselves into bondage to brick kilns or are recruited by jamadars, who act as foremen. The jamadars pay them in advance of their work with the stipulation that they bond themselves to landlords until they clear their debt. Whole families will enter into debt-bondage under this agreement, and the landlords cruelly exploit them.

Employers subject these laborers to debased treatment whether male or female, young or old, simply to pay off loans amounting to an average of just Rs.2,500 ($75). With a daily wage of between Rs.80 and Rs.120 ($2.40 – $3.60), employers deduct 50 percent to repay the laborers’ loans, showing that the system is truly rigged against a person’s chances for freedom. Borrowers, despite their best efforts, often cannot ever repay their employers. As a result, they become trapped in not only a vicious cycle of debt but also a cycle of abuse with little recourse offered for escape.

When Human Rights Watch Asia interviewed brick kiln workers in 1995, it compiled a troubling number of assaults. In one account, a jamadar broke a laborers arm for simple mistakes in his work. In another, a jamadar beat a worker unconscious and then locked them in a small shed with no food for three days. HRWs’ report contains dozens of similar incidents.

The Conditions for Women

Women working in this prison-like environment face physical and sexual violence as well; instances of rape are hauntingly frequent. Additionally, the slavers expect the women to work while pregnant and with no pay because the employer does not recognize them as independent workers.

“We are the most scared, particularly for our daughters,” Mariam, a bonded laborer from a brick-kiln near Mirpur Khas, states. “The abuse we suffer at work would not seem so bad if at night we could go to homes that the malik (employer) did not control.” Employers exercise exclusive rights over those indebted to them. They can freely restrict laborers from taking extra work elsewhere or force them to live on-site, sometimes with armed guards keeping watch.

Mariam’s’ fellow bonded workers share her wishes for privacy and a temporary escape from the worksites, but maliks do not want to risk their assets escaping. In fact, the maliks use collective abuse to brutally punish families if even one of their members escapes. Throughout the long workday, the slavers inflict similar physical abuse on the laborers that do not live on-site as well.

A Pakistani Paradox

The constitution of Pakistan actually forbids slavery and forced labor. In fact, the Bonded Labour Abolition Act of 1992 and the National Policy and Plan of Action on Bonded Labour in 2001 were enacted in order to stop such practices. While Islamabad recognizes that bonded labor is a major problem, it has not effectively enforced domestic and international labor laws.

Raja Abbas, the president of the Association of Network for Community Empowerment, has been working for the rights of brick-kiln workers. He says, “We need to urge provincial governments to practically enforce the Bonded Labour System Abolition Act 1992, prepare provincial plans of action and take all other steps necessary to end this slavery.” Only through serious actions can the government effectively change the system.

The road towards sustainable solutions for slavery in Pakistan is still unclear in terms of battling a corrupt and unpredictable legal framework. Domestic initiatives, in addition to international ones through organizations like the United Nations, is vital to enacting lasting, meaningful change. Gul, Mariam and millions just like them depend on and deserve freedom and deliverance from this corrupt system.

– Bill Coz
Photo: Flickr

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