Islamabad: “Brick kilns in Pakistan have turned into breeding grounds for bonded labor amidst the startling revelations that pregnant women and children are forced to work in a harsh environment because of non-implementation of labor laws,” workers and NGOs officials said.
“The condition of children and specifically pregnant women who work on the brick kiln speaks volume of government’s inefficiency to legislate and ameliorate things in favor of labors,” Syeda Ghulam Fatima, general secretary of the Bonded Labor Liberation Front (BLLF) told News Lens Pakistan.
The kiln workers and their families are denied the right to look for better work. They are underpaid, overworked and deprived of the basic amenities of life.
The tyranny of bonded labor is limitless with reports of severe beating, abduction and sexual harassment abound.
Fatima said that the BLLF, an NGO that works on the eradication of bonded labor, has become the voice of voiceless persons who are forced to work in harsh conditions.
“We have an estimated number of over 4.5 million bonded laborers in Pakistan. In Punjab alone, 2.3 million of these people are working at brick kilns where women folk and children are subjected to various kinds of exploitation while working under a form of modern day slavery,” she noted.
Above all, the worst tragedy is that that the so-called unions of brick kiln workers do not exist. If they do, they are turned into manipulative bodies whose members, in collaboration with the brick kiln owners, exploit their fellow laborers.
A mention of the draft bill 1989 on bonded labor (abolition) is merited; it was tabled in the same year, and became law in 1992, ending the ‘bonded labor system’.
On the other hand, Article 11 of the constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan says that:
“(1) Slavery is non-existent and forbidden and no law shall permit or facilitate its introduction into Pakistan in any form.
(2) All forms of forced labor and traffic in human beings are prohibited.
(3) No child below the age of 14 years shall be engaged in any factory or mine or any other hazardous employment.”
However, secretary Punjab Labor and Human Resource department Ali Sarfaraz Hussain pledged that all measures have been taken to implement the law in letter and spirit.
He said that the provincial government had initiated an integrated project under which maximum number of children would be enrolled in schools.
Hussain told News Lens Pakistan that the project would be extended to every district of Punjab to make sure that every child either on the street or working on the brick kiln goes to school.
“The government of Punjab has allocated Rs. 5 billion for the project,” he said, adding that the survey in this regard had already been finalized.
Wakilan Rajpoot 35 has no clue of the labor laws or their implementation to protect her rights. She is working on a brick kiln in Hyderabad, Sindh since ages. Wakilan thinks, “Brick kiln is a family oriented labor system where every individual of the family, including children and pregnant women have to work day and night to please their owner and end the debt.”
Mother of four, Wakilan, told that her kids worked along with her from dawn to dusk. “We get Rs. 450 ($4.5) per 1,000 bricks. We are entangled in debt net by the owner. I need to work till late night to feed my kids. In this era of inflation, all my family members, irrespective of their age or gender, have to work to eke out a livelihood,” she said.
She said that she had to borrow money from the kiln owner so she could arrange for her sons’ and daughters’ marriages and their medical expenses.
“I demand the government introduce a law to help rid us of our slave-like situation,” she added.
Wakilan is not the only one suffering. Manager research and communication SPARC— Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child, Zohair Waheed- in his email reply, told News Lens Pakistan that the concept of bonded labor revolved around the premise of debt bondage or peshgi system in Pakistan.
“Families are forced to take upon loans to provide for healthcare, marriages and even basic necessities. These loans come at the expense of exorbitant interest rates levied by the employer. The loan is paid back wherein the family works at the brick kiln and pays off the amount, but the amount of interest on the loan makes it impossible for it to be paid and is passed down from generation to generation, thus creating a vicious cycle of debt bondage,” he remarked.
In consistency with the international data on forced labor, he said that the largest segment of bonded laborers in Pakistan (mostly concentrated in Sindh and Punjab) were engaged in the agriculture and brick kiln sectors.
“The Global Slavery Index reported that in 2014 almost 2,058,200 people (approximately 1.13% of the entire population) in Pakistan were engaged in slavery or similar conditions: the country ranks second in terms of the largest number of people forced into slavery in the Asian Pacific region,” Waheed said.
“Teenage boys and girls regularly have been working in brick kilns and are involved in different processes in making bricks,” he said, adding that pregnant women also work at kilns but are given a leave of absence at the time of child birth.
“But no healthcare facilities are provided by the employers to ease pregnant women,” he added.
Punhu Mazdoo, 42, a brick kiln worker and president Sindh Brick Kiln Labor Federation in Hyderabad, said, “We work for generations at the brick kiln. Families are held hostage by the owner through debt. I demand the government of Pakistan to help us gain relief from this vicious circle so that we can celebrate freedom.”