Scourge of bonded labour

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

MOST of us erroneously believe that slavery has never existed in Pakistan and bonded labour ended 13 years ago when the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1992 was adopted by the National Assembly. But the fact is that this law abolished bonded labour only on paper, and not in reality.

Had it been so, you would not have been reading in the press today about cases such as Munno Bheel’s, who was released from bonded labour by the HRCP in 1996 to have eight of his family members allegedly kidnapped two years later by the powerful landlord in Mirpurkhas in whose service Mr Bheel had been bonded before his release.

Recently, the press has also reported the case of Mumtaz Mai and her eight-year-old son Nadeem who were sold for Rs 70,000 by one brick kiln owner in Multan to another in Dera Ismail Khan because the woman’s husband had failed to repay the peshgi of Rs 65,000 he had borrowed from the kiln contractor.

Peshgi is one of the most inhuman systems developed in our part of the world to exploit the poverty and illiteracy of workers. It is common among the kiln workers in Punjab and the haris in Sindh. The kiln owners and landlords are only too willing to advance a loan to their workers, albeit on phenomenal rates of interest. As such, the loan never gets repaid and the indebted worker, as well as his family, is bonded for life.

Sometimes the bond is passed on from one generation to the next. Not being able to read and write and entirely at the mercy of their creditors, the workers get bonded without understanding the implications of their action. Even if they understand the consequences, there is not much they can do about it, given their abject poverty. Moreover, the transaction is not recorded in writing and the worker receives no receipts for the payments made.

After much international pressure and a landmark decision of the Supreme Court in 1989 declaring forced labour against peshgis illegal, the National Assembly adopted a law in 1992 abolishing bonded labour.

But it took three years for the government to notify the rules in 1995 and another six to formulate a national policy on bonded labour in 2001 followed by a plan of action.

The latter was mainly the outcome of the efforts of Omar Asghar Khan who was a federal minister at the time and known for his humanism. The National Committee for Bonded Labour set up under this plan required every province to constitute vigilance committees. This was done quite half-heartedly. Thus in Sindh only 12 out of 23 districts set up these committees but only three of them actually met.

The plan also provided for the creation of a fund for the rehabilitation of freed bonded labour, but the Rs 125 million generated for it has still not been utilized.

Why is it that in spite of all the laws — national and international — bonded labour continues to flourish in the country? Piler, a Karachi-based NGO working in the field of labour education and research, has done a lot of insightful work in this field. It identifies nine sectors where ‘forced’ labour is common in Pakistan. These are construction, carpet weaving, mining, glass bangles, tanneries, domestic work, beggary, agriculture and brick kilns.

The last two account for the preponderance of bonded labour that is estimated to be in the range of six million.

It is not difficult to understand how labour is so easily bonded. Tracing its roots to the institution of slavery, Piler feels that bonded labour has been sustained by the illiteracy of the workers and the fact that they figure low down the social hierarchy and are open to oppression by the owners. Underpaid and exploited, the kiln workers and haris find it impossible to make two ends meet. Hence they are obliged to take loans from their employers, which mysteriously never get repaid, all deductions notwithstanding.

According to Piler, women and children have to share the burden of the credit and are obliged to work without proper remuneration for their labour. It is psychologically crippling for them to know that they have been robbed of their freedom. Worse still they are subjected to abuse of all kinds — sexual, verbal and physical.

It may be somewhat difficult to believe that in today’s civilized world there are people in our society who regard bonded labour to be sanctioned by the Quran and the Sunnah. They claim that when the worker borrows money from his employer, he is obliged to repay it. The loan provides him money to tide over his immediate need that is generally of an urgent kind — a wedding, a funeral, or so on. But thereafter, he must return the outstanding amount through his wages. Thinking on these lines, eight kiln owners in Punjab had filed a petition in the Federal Shariat Court challenging the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act contending that it was repugnant to Islam.

The positive side of this bleak picture is that there are people who do care and interventions have been made from time to time for the release and rehabilitation of bonded labour. The most significant move of late has been the landmark judgment of the Federal Shariat Court in October 2005 in the case filed by the aforementioned kiln owners. The honourable judges observed that the law was a beneficial statutory dispensation which advocates the Islamic canons of human dignity and the fundamental rights of the workers. Thus the law has been protected from the first onslaught.

But more such attacks can be expected. Hence, more interventions are needed if the evil of bonded labour is to be rooted out. In the past, the government, the judiciary and civil society have acted to release and rehabilitate bonded labour. The courts have proved to be helpful and have acted swiftly in cases that have come before them.. However, the police have not been equally cooperative. Pressure from the NGOs, especially human rights activists, have secured the release of 5,687 bonded haris and 8,530 workers in the last 15 years. This is like a drop in the ocean.

Unless the provisions of the 1992 act are implemented fully, it is doubtful that we shall ever get rid of the curse of bonded labour in this country. Meanwhile, the international agencies have taken up this issue seriously and exerted pressure on the government to act.

Without these institutionalized interventions, not much of an impact would have been created. But the situation continues to be horrendous. Some excellent field research on bonded labour in agriculture and kiln industry has been done. A number of cases have been recorded and shocking stories have emerged from these accounts. It is worth recording a few typical comments from Piler’s forthcoming report Analysis of Interventions in Bonded Labour in Pakistan by Zulfiqar Shah.

Asghar Bhatti, 50, a kiln worker from Multan says, “I am in this situation because I don’t have money; I was born in a poor family and shall die poor. It’s our fate. I think I am poor because my father was poor.” He has been working at the kiln since childhood and earns a pittance. A worker is paid on piece basis — Rs 176 per 1,000 bricks he makes. A family of four (two parents and two children) can make at the most 1,000 to 1,500 bricks in a day. Small wonder he has landed himself in debt. With no written records, this debt is never repaid and keeps mounting.

Field data reveals that a majority of the released haris have spent one to three years under what they think was bondage. Sharecroppers or wage labourers, they were compelled to work to clear their debts which was unlikely because they kept borrowing small amounts for daily expenses.”

The workers at kilns and the haris are often sold by one owner to another to recover the money they had borrowed. They are also kept in chains and private jails. This is the price they have to pay for their poverty and ignorance. They do not have NICs and very little recourse to legal intervention.

The media has played a key role in creating awareness. But more needs to be done especially in sensitizing the public Above all, the landlords and kiln owners need to be told that workers are not like commodities to be abused. The report states: “Activists and ex-haris say that even the rape of a hari woman is considered their right… and landlords proudly declare and joke with each other that they have kept their haris in chains.”