On her weekly radio show broadcast across parts of Punjab, Syeda Fatima implores her fellow workers to fight the system: “My fellow brothers and sisters, we cannot succeed unless you demand your rightful wages of Rs 517 as set by the government.”
Since 1988, Fatima’s organisation, the Bonded Labour Liberation Front Pakistan (BLLF) has successfully released over 80,000 men, women and children from bonded labour. BLLF has also successfully advocated for an increase in wages for these labourers from Rs200 to Rs517 per 1,000 bricks.
When Fatima was growing up, she would often go to the brick kilns to teach reading and writing to the children who worked there. “I wasn’t interested in buying nice clothes. All I wanted to do was spend as much time as possible with these workers so that I could understand their problems,” she says.
Under the age-old bonded labour system, entire families are held by the owners, who often make children as young as four years work in the kilns. Since, most brick kiln workers are illiterate, when they ask for medical or other loans, they are made to sign on a paper which states an amount much higher than the loan amount.
Even in this day and age, brick kiln workers and their families are mercilessly bought and treated like slaves
The families are seldom able to pay back this amount and as interest accrues, they are sold from one brick kiln owner to another without their knowledge or consent.
“This makes me angry,” says Fatima. “I feel we are living in some dark age. How can people be traded and held like slaves in today’s day and age.” She travels to remote sites to educate the workers about their rights, telling them that if they unite their voices will be stronger and that the owners will be forced to listen to them. She’s paid a heavy price for her activism.
“The biggest risk I took was putting my life on the line and my family in harm’s way,” she says. A few years ago Ayaz, her younger brother who often accompanied her to the kilns, was travelling with her when suddenly four men came and fired at them. Fatima escaped with minor injuries but Ayaz, who was shot at close range, permanently damaged his kneecap and is unable to walk without support.
“When we lay there wounded on the ground, we both promised ourselves that our struggle was a peaceful one and that we would continue our work,” she says. When the brick kiln workers heard about the shooting, hundreds of them arrived at the hospital to pray for their recovery. “They were our strength,” says Ayaz.
My production company SOC Films travelled across Pakistan in 2012 to film a series titled Ho Yaqeen Syeda Fatima was featured as a brave warrior in the series. In a scene in the film, Fatima barges into a brick kiln and confronts the owner who beats his workers with a whip. “It’s our right,” he says. “We pay them.”
“It’s barbaric,” she replies. “You are interfering with our business. Do you want us to stop our business?” he screams out.
“No, but I don’t want you to hurt people” she says.
She challenges him: “If you prove you’ve never whipped any of your workers, I will back off.”
He replies: “I am not denying anything.”
At one point the owner threatens her and Fatima gives it right back to him. “I am not one of your labourers,” she says. “You better listen to what I have to say.” Eventually the owner admits that he has been beating his employees and reluctantly agrees to discontinue when Fatima threatens to call the police.
“Who doesn’t need bricks? Anyone who wants to build a home needs bricks. Inside those bricks is the blood and honour of my workers,” she says.
Passed in 1992 by the federal legislature in Pakistan, the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act declares illegal all arrangements that impose restrictions on labour or services as a condition for loans and advances (peshgi). “Very few laborers know this,” she says.
Workers often sneak away in the middle of the night and come to Fatima to seek assistance. While we were filming, Ashiq Maseeh, a young man whose employers broke his arm, injured his foot and routinely beat his wife, arrived to meet her. He had borrowed Rs30,000 from his employer and now him, his wife, his six sons and two daughters were all bonded labourers for them.
“All we wish is to live our lives freely. Fatima is the only one who can help us,” he said as he cried softly. “No one else will help us.”
In a dramatic scene in the film, Fatima accompanies two police mobiles in the middle of the night, as they raid the brick kiln and release the family. Fatima hugs the children as they emerge. “I can understand the importance of freedom in an individual’s life and I can see that reflected in the children’s eyes.”
Fatima’s next mission is to provide social security cards to the workers across Punjab. Working with the government and brick kiln owners, Fatima wants to get the workers social security cards so that the workers can get access to medical and social services.
According to a law passed by the Supreme Court in April 2010, owners are legally bound to issue social security cards for brick kiln workers. These cards are essential, because they will cover expenses which the workers have been taking loans for.
Liberating Ashiq’s family is a small step in Fatima’s struggle. The social security cards will be a much more challenging task.
“I will keep fighting for as long as I am alive. I wish to see a Pakistan that is free of bonded labour. This is my dream and purpose in life.”
To learn more about Syeda Fatima’s work please log on to: http://www.bllfpak.org/
To watch the Ho Yaqeen piece on Syeda Fatima please log on to: https://vimeo.com/73202517
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, August 3rd, 2014