The issue we are facing:
The International Labor Organization has estimated that 250 million children between the ages of five and fourteen work in developing countries; 61% in Asia, 32 % in Africa and 7% in Latin America. Many of these children are forced to work. They are denied an education and normal childhood. Some are confined and beaten. Some are denied the right to leave the workplace and go home to their families. Some are even abducted and forced to work.
According to United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), almost 50 million adults in Pakistan are illiterate, while the dropout rate in primary schools is the highest in the world at 50 percent.
There are 1.8 million workers in brick factories. Most of them work under inhumane conditions and the majority are like bonded labor because of the ‘Peshgi’ system. Under this system, the bosses offer advance money to workers, who cannot leave until they repay the whole amount. Most of the workers are illiterate and they do not know how much money is being repaid. They take advantage of this and impose many so-called fines on workers.
In many brick factories in Pakistan, horrific stories are told of rebellious or sick workers being thrown into the factories alive. “They don’t leave behind any traces,” one source says, adding that rape is “totally normal”.
Brick Factory workers are consistently subjected to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, Human Rights Watch / Asia has reported that physical abuse is common punishment for failure to produce enough bricks, disobedience of employer or foreman or attempts to organize other workers. The forms of abuse include being beaten with sticks, whipped, and roughed up to the point of injury. Many male brick factory workers are victims of physical abuse, and most workers considered this abuse a natural part of their life and work.
If any brick factory worker attempts to organize other workers into a union to demand an increase in wages and a decrease in debts, the result is a severe beating by the owners of the brick factories.
If any worker seeks help from the local police, they will not press charges against the brick factory owner. The ability of brick factory workers to move freely or change their place of residence is tightly restricted.
Slavery is illegal in Pakistan. Both slavery and forced labor are explicitly prohibited in the constitution. Indentured servitude — e.g. loaning someone money and then forcing them to work in a specific place until they pay off that debt — is also illegal.
But charges are seldom pressed and convictions are even rarer, even in cases of sexual abuse or the murder of workers. The reason is that most people who keep slaves are in positions of power people like Brick Factory owners are often above the law in Pakistan. The country is still a feudal society, with wealth in many cases the product of exploitation. The police often collect hush money and look away.
Basically the Islamic Republic of Pakistan is an agricultural country and 75% of its population is living in villages. Underprivileged children in rural areas, especially from Christian families, face a future of child slavery. Broke parents, mainly due to lack of finances and resources, are unable to afford school fees, and the only option left is often child labor.
Women in brick factories in particular are often abused, raped and mistreated. They have to work from dawn to dusk like the men; moreover women are not given any maternity leave and are expected to work throughout their pregnancy and two to three days after giving birth.
Not only do children constitute a large proportion of brick factory workers, but the rate of child mortality in the brick factory is very high. Afflictions common among child brick factory workers include deteriorating eyesight and even blindness. The families claim that the children are blinded, because of impurities in the mud. A study conducted by a group in the Northwest Frontier Province revealed that children brick makers suffered 50 percent more chronic illnesses, especially chest, black cough, Hepatitis and T.B infections.
Moreover, children who work in brick factory are often psychologically traumatized, as they live in fear and witness a consistent pattern of physical violence against family members from a young age, according to a joint government and UNICEF report titled Discover the Working Child. As with women bonded workers, children receive no compensation for their work and are sometimes kept as insurance against the escape of male adult family members. The condition of children in the brick factories is known by the government of Pakistan and international agencies.
The children start working alongside their parents at a young age, between 5 and 8. They work long hours, starting at dawn during the hot season and working until late in the evening with a short break during the day. There is typically no shade in the working grounds and they are exposed to the scorching sun in the summer and suffer severe cold in the winter. They work barefoot and continuously inhale fine dust from the clay and noxious gases from the coal burning chimneys of brick factories.
What make the situation of the majority of the children of brick factories laborers especially untenable, however, are the particular circumstances arising from the indebtedness system under which they and their families live and work. The children cannot wait indefinitely for new laws and the social climate to make a difference in their life.
Efforts to break their isolation and slavery, to integrate them in the surrounding schools, and accelerated programs of education must start immediately.
True Stories of Children in Bonded Labor
The heroic Iqbal Masih- a champion of children’ right. Iqbal was gunned down on April 16, 1995 in Muridke, his hometown, as he had been raising voice against the prevalent child labor.
Iqbal Masih was targeted for the reason that he was instrumental in freeing 3000 bonded labour children- the majority of them being Christians. Though his life was cut short, Iqbal Masih, has been an inspiration. His commitment to save others, and in so doing sacrificing his own life, is a message to us all.
Freedom from oppressors will always come at a cost and so often martyrs are forgotten. We wanted his work to emancipate other victims to be remembered, that it might cement a place for acceptance of the beleaguered Christian minority in Pakistan and inspire generations of humanitarians yet to come. Iqbal Masih was born in 1983 in Muridke, a town in Punjab, Pakistan. His misery began at the age of four, when he was sold into bondage by his family. It so happened that poor lad’s family borrowed 600 rupees from a local employer who owned a carpet weaving business. Since the Christian family was unable to return the loan along with interest rate, Iqbal was required to work as a carpet weaver at the lenders’ until the debt was paid off.
During the years of his slavery, Iqbal used to rise before dawn and set off for the carpet weaving factory, as he later revealed, he and most of the other children were tightly bound with chains in order to prevent them from escaping. He told that he was made to toil, 12 hours a day, and seven days a week sparing only 30-minutes as a breather. For all his hard labour, he was paid only 3 cents a day, nevertheless whatever he did, the loan just got bigger and bigger on the poor Christian family.
At the age of 10, he made up his mind to break away from his slavery. Despite the fact that he was underdeveloped as a result of malnutrition and weakened by lack of exercise, still he and a few of his friends managed to run away. After fleeing, he approached a local police station and explained how their employer was beating the children and keeping them as slaves. Regrettably, the police officer was more willing to receive the “finder’s fee” for escaped child slaves and thus returned Iqbal to the factory’s owner. The tragic return was horrible then before, as the factory owner chained him to a carpet weaving machine and forced him to work; often times subjecting him to physical abuse and starvation.
Two years later, he managed to reveal his misery to a brick layer union leader, named Ehsan Ullah Khan who made successful efforts to free Iqbal from bondage. The 12-year-old, Iqbal became a high up leader of the anti-slavery movement in Pakistan. He attended the Bonded Labour Liberation Front (BLLF) School for former child slaves and quickly completed a four year education in only two years.
The BLLF started sending him to speak at conferences and demonstrations all over the country. As a result of his powerful and moving story, soon Iqbal Masih began visiting other countries, in order to raise awareness of child slavery and advocating for their freedom. Everywhere he went he inspired others to become involved in the mission to end child slavery.
“I would like to do what Abraham Lincoln did… I would like to do it in Pakistan” -Iqbal Masih
We interviewed Rafiq Masih, a Brick Factory slave. His story starts at his parents’ home, which was the reason he would be forced into slavery. Sixteen years ago, when he was 8 years old, his parents borrowed 35,000 rupees, worth about U$D340 today, from Khan, the factory owner. They wanted to take that money together with their meager savings to buy a piece of property and build a two-room house.
Khan lent them the money, but he also demanded that the Rafiq live and work in the brick factory until they had paid off their debt. “My parents agreed to it. What else could they do?” asks Rafiq. “They thought they would have it paid back in one or two years.”
The family moved into the workers’ accommodation at the factory, a clay hut that housed around 50 people. The entire family was allotted a room about the size of a horse stall. All they had to sleep on was a bed frame pushed up against the wall that was far too cramped for two adults, Rafiq and his four brothers. They were only allowed to leave the property with the permission of the factory boss. They were given one day a week off in addition to two months during the summer monsoon season when operations at the factory ceased anyway due to strong rainfall. During their time off, they weren’t paid.
The Rafiq’s worked hard. They would wake up at 3 a.m. each morning to avoid the unbearable afternoon heat. Women and children — some as young as three years old — would knead clay, soil, salt and water to create the gray mixture that would be pushed into wood molds to form bricks. After they dried for 24 hours, the men would cart them to the oven, where they would be stacked up in the furnaces. One day later, the bricks, baked red, would be taken with wheel barrow to the delivery area.
“If one or two children work as well, a person can earn an average of 3,000 rupees per week,” , “depending on how many bricks we make,”
Rafiq says. “Of that, 1,000 rupees are deducted each week for the loan, leaving about 8,000 rupees a month. That’s enough to provide the family with flat bread and lentils.” There were seldom any vegetables and the family only had meat about two times a year on holidays. “If someone got sick or needed medicine or a doctor, we would go back into debt,” he explains of life in servitude. “And if someone was unable to work, there was no pay.”
Despite the payments, the debt the Rafiq owed never shrunk. Instead, it continued to grow through excessive interest, falsified bookkeeping and small loans for unanticipated expenditures. The years passed by and Rafiq had become a grown-up. Because he promised to work until all the debts had been paid off, his parents, by then elderly, were freed. People at the brick factory experienced firsthand the entire cycle of life: children were born and some of the workers even died.
Year in and year out, Rafiq stood barefoot in the cold sludge and in the heat of the brick factory. He never attended school and his world was confined to the factory and the village where his parents had built their home. He never once ventured to the capital city Islamabad, sprawling Karachi or even nearby Lahore.
At the age of 22, Rafiq met a girl named Rebekka during a period when the brickyard was closed because of the monsoons. When the two married, they borrowed 20,000 rupees, or about U$D194, from Khan in order to cover the party and food that relatives and local villagers expected from such an event. Their first child, a girl, arrived soon. It was a difficult birth and Rebekka had to have a Caesarean section. Few have health insurance in Pakistan and the couple had to pay the hospital 30,000 rupees for the procedure. Once again, Rafiq was forced to ask Khan for money. Their second child, a son, also had to be delivered by C-section, creating further debts for the family. “I thought, I’m never going to get out of here anyway, so I might as well go into debt,” Rafiq says.
When asked why he didn’t just run away, Rafiq smiles. “I have to pay back my debts!” He comes across as the kind of person who has nothing but his honor — an honor he wants to preserve by keeping his word. But his words also betray the sense of resignation and the fears of a person who is used to being at the very bottom of the hierarchy.
“Running away wouldn’t have helped me,” Rafiq says. “They have their troops — they would have looked for us, hauled us back, locked us up and beat us.” Many brick factory owners also buy and sell slaves, making it easy to get rid of workers they don’t like. “Sometimes even to distant regions,” he says. “If that had happened, I would never have come home again.”
Indeed, instances such as Rafiq’s, show that it is often impossible to pay back the debts, meaning the only path to liberty for slaves is if somebody buys them free.