Slaves of a System
“What percentage of brick kilns do you think use bonded labor?” we asked. “100 percent for all we know”, replied Advocate Syed Ayaz Hussain at the Bonded Labor Liberation Front (BLLF).
Debt bondage has more complex roots than just poverty. Loans or Paishgi (advance payment) might be the reason that bring families into slavery, but there are socio-cultural, political and legal reasons that prevent them from leaving.
The debts and advance payments that laborers take from their owners are primarily for two reasons; to pay medical bills or to finance wedding ceremonies. You need to be poor to ask for a loan, and illiterate not to keep track of your repayment, yes. But you also have to be part of a section of society that is routinely preyed upon.
Most bonded laborers on brick kilns in Punjab are either non-Muslims or belong to scheduled castes. Both of these groups are known to be at the bottom of the social food chain in Pakistan and are associated with menial jobs and manual labor. With low rates of literacy and often no family trees and national identification records, these groups are ideal targets for kiln owners. Invisible, miscalculating slaves.
Indeed, many bonded laborers (especially) in the agricultural sector are involved in unpaid, compulsory and hereditary work often referred to as “begaar”. Commentators such as I. A. Rehman who heads the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, believe that large landownerships are the point of origin for slavery in the country. He also believes that departure of non-Muslim money lenders after partition exposed religious minorities to money lenders with political clout i.e. aristocratic Muslim landowners.
But being poor isn’t enough to make you a slave, according to Kevin Bales, the British professor of contemporary slavery. It is because of the failure of the law to protect someone who is vulnerable to slavery. Despite the fact that slavery and forced labor is outlawed under Article 11 of the Constitution of Pakistan, laborers in debt bondage on brick kilns had no specific law to protect them for a long time. The evil genius of debt bondage lies in the fact that it is a civil liability. This means that failure to pay up can land a laborer indefinitely in state prison. They can only be freed when the debt has been repaid.
The state woke up to the horrors of debt bondage for the first time in 1988. Darshan Masih, a labor bonded to a brick kiln sent a telegram to the Chief Justice of Pakistan to ask for relief. The resulting case Darshan Masih vs State led to Pakistan’s first anti-slavery law: the bonded labor abolition act of 1992. This law not only prohibited advance payment and debt bondage but also prescribed punishments of 2 to 5 years imprisonment and Rs. 50,000 or more in fines for perpetrators. The law also created District Vigilance Committees to monitor the problem.
Video: Hina Jillani explains why the 1992 judgment was monumental.
However, Pakistani laws still seem to be running in circles. The “Punjab Prohibition of Child Labor at Brick Kilns” promulgated in 2016 re-allowed the Paishgi system of advance payments, virtually giving legal cover to debt bondage, as long as “amounts and payback schedule are entered in the prescribed register”. Further, it allowed for owners to recover payments in “accordance with law”. The state once again turned a blind eye to the fact that people striving to make ends meet cannot repay loans. Add to this the fact that accountants traditionally inflate loans to keep laborers in bondage. It is also worth mentioning that not a single brick kiln owner has been sentenced in 26 years of the original law, despite numerous cases of proven slavery.
“We tried to work with the government to limit the amount of money lent as paishgi to Rs. 50,000. But the laws they make are never fully implemented,” says Shoaib Niazi, the Chairman of the Brick Kiln Owners Association. “We do not want the system of paishgi to continue, or for child labor to continue, or bonded labor to continue. We want to help with social security as well. But not a single government official worked with us. They do not want this practice to end,” he says.
The District Vigilance Committees are still constituted, but monitoring kilns is only one item in a long list to jobs to be undertaken for them. Guarantees made by owners on fortnightly visits are an ineffective source to conclude that debt bondage is not prevalent. Indeed, the Punjab Government claimed in its Kiln Census that 70% of all children at kilns attend school, which is highly unlikely. The fact that kiln owners have political clout is undeniable. Shoaib Niazi likes to claim that the new law was promoted at his insistence.
“On paper, it’s all very good. The laws are comprehensive, the vision clear. But we know, more than anyone, what really is happening on the ground,” says Syeda Amna Maudodi, an Assistant Commissioner in Sheikhupura. The area with the highest concentration of brick kilns in Punjab is where the wadera culture is deeply pervasive. Those who own the kilns usually own the land around it, and also have seats in the national and provincial assemblies of Pakistan. For these people, Amna says, laws exist just on paper. Thus, the issue of bonded labor on brick kilns takes a back seat in matters of priority for the government.
The District Vigilance Committees spring in action when Pakistan is blamed for being a hotbed for modern slavery in international reports. Then the matter dies down. “With so much happening- dengue and polio drives, wheat procurement drives and work regarding the upcoming Ramzan bazaars- we really do not get much time to carry out raids on the kilns,” says Amna Maudodi. There is also the general lack of hope regarding the problem. They raid the kilns, and get the children working there to leave. But the minutes their cars turn from the kiln, the children are back. “We visit the kilns once or twice a month. Nothing substantial has ever come out of it,” says Amna.
The ownership of kilns follows the pattern of land ownership. Of the 10,000 plus kilns in Punjab, most are unregistered, the government and brick kiln owners accuse each other for this. ”I have tried to make the government work with me for registering workers and kilns, but nobody is willing. The government just wants to do meetings and pretends to care for votes,” says Shoaib Niazi. Inevitably tied with the boom in the construction industry, the number of kilns has risen to its present number from only 2,455 in 1980. The contribution of the clay brick industry stands at 1.5% of the GDP.
The solution of social security also hits a dead end continuously. Employers are required to pay Rs. 900 per employee every month to the government under this solution. Their disagreement is no surprise, since they are effectively managing large-scale exploitation. Included the basic human rights denied to these laborers is freedom of association.
Video: Economic interests and the right to associate
The total number of bonded laborers in Pakistan is also a matter of disagreement in the absence of a reliable official census. ILO claimed in 2001 that the number of bonded slaves on brick kilns alone is 10 million. Recent estimates by the HRCP put slaves across all industries between 3 to 8 million. However, NGOs such as BLLF, who work on the ground fear that there might be up to 4.5 million bonded laborers in brick kilns in the Punjab alone.
The chains aren’t all visible though. The debt is only the instrument that brings people to slavery, people are enslaved through force, coercion and all sorts of violence including sexual. A system of mental servitude is working so effectively that bonded laborers often willingly walk back to kilns after freedom.
Video: Invisible Chains:
In a lawless land the best way to lower your cost of production is to inhumanely exploit your labor. As kilns spout more profit than smoke for the owners, destitute and mentally enslaved brick makers can only watch in horror as their debt climbs to infinity.