THE saga of the 39 labourers whose release was secured from a mat-making factory in Peshawar by court bailiffs on Saturday highlights once again the exploitation of labour. The men had been working for the same employer for the last eight years and while their complaints go back much further in time, they seemed to have restrained themselves until now. It was the last four days before their rescue they are most concerned about. They had not been allowed to leave their workplace for four days, denied food for long hours and allegedly subjected to torture. The 39 are not only from the same Pindi Bhatian village — most of them are said to be related to each other — theirs is also the classic case where a group from one locality ends up at the same workplace, moved by the same dreams and finds itself more vulnerable to exploitation away from home. These labourers say the employer owes them Rs100,000 against a week’s work. This comes to just over Rs2,500 per head and Rs10,000 per month. This is reward enough for those who cannot find any other work and are forced to expose themselves to all kinds of excesses by their ‘masters’.
Eight years working under tough conditions is long time. Now as they have spoken, they are fully within their rights to claim what is legally theirs. Also, they have reason to hail at least some aspects of a system that otherwise draws so much flak for its inability to deliver justice. At the same time, the incident highlights the need for stringent measures to check the practice of forced and unfair labour by an organisation that doesn’t have to wait for a labourer’s call to rush advice and other help where it is most needed.