Chained: Debt bondage in Pakistan

“Those who do not move do not notice their chains,” said Rosa Luxemburg, a 20th century philosopher.
Published January 20, 2015

There are an estimated 2,058,200 people in modern slavery in Pakistan – 1.13% of the entire population. Debt bondage is the most prevalent form of slavery which is mainly found in the brick making, agriculture, and carpet weaving industries, according to Global Slavery Index.

By Syed Fawad Hasan | January 20, 2015

“Those who do not move do not notice their chains,” Rosa Luxemburg, a renowned philosopher and activist, once said.

Bonded labourers Puno Bheel and Wakeela Rajput in Tando Hyder, Hyderabad, may never have heard of Luxemburg, but true to her spirit they were able to rise and break free of their chains, defying oppressive customs and inspiring others in the process.

Puno Bheel and Wakeela Rajput are two longtime workers of Sindh Federation Bhatta Mazdoor Union. The latter is now the president of the said organisation and leads the union in tough times contrary to the generally held belief that a woman cannot spearhead a revolutionary movement. The enduring struggle of Puno and Wakeela has inspired and delivered freedom to many besides ruffling the feathers of several ‘lords’ who are now their staunch enemies.

Life maybe different for Puno and Wakeela now but they haven't forgotten their time enslaved in Kotri at Baba Salahdin Camp. The agony and humiliation of that life, they feel, can only be overcome by empowering other haaris (landless peasants) and getting them justice.

Killer Kilns

In the second largest city of Sindh, Hyderabad, approximately 150 brick kilns employ thousands of workers to produce the valuable material used for construction of houses. In the words of an expert, “This bricks business is more profitable than the dealing of drugs like heroine or opium for the ‘bhatta-malikan’ (kiln owners) because it has an aspect of extreme exploitation of the workers.”

The tough life at the kilns is exacerbated by a lack of toilet facilities, no supply of drinkable water, and exposure to harmful gases emanating from furnaces which also raise temperatures to an unbearable extent.

The old and weak, the young and hopeless, all toil day in day out, for not less than 16 hours daily to get, at best, Rs240 from their owners. Most of these families have been duped by land lords or owners of brick kilns into debt bondage, the most prevalent form of modern slavery in Pakistan. High interest rates and meagre pay means the debt piles and is eventually impossible to pay off when combined with living expenses. Gradually, the families, generation after the other, pay back with their lives for the loans they took for necessities as basic as food after a failed harvest, weddings or house rent.

Men at a brick kiln gather to speak of their woes.
Men at a brick kiln gather to speak of their woes.

Bonded labor has been outlawed in Pakistan and most other affected countries in line with UN conventions on human rights. But according to the 2014 Global Slavery Index, 2,058,200 people are enslaved in Pakistan.

Particularly at risk are those bound to caste systems, migrant workers and victims of human trafficking.

"The provinces of Punjab and Sindh are hotspots of bonded labour, which is mainly found in the brick making, agriculture, and carpet weaving industries. While official statistics are not available, recently it was estimated that the brick kiln industry employs around 4.5 million people across the country," the 2014 Global Slavery Index report says.

According to The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, in Sindh and Punjab some bonded labourers in brick kilns are “either kept in captivity by armed guards or their family members become virtual hostages.”

The family members, including young children, are chained to the cycle as the debt is transferred to them in the case an adult worker dies or is disabled. Those who manage to escape are often hunted and forced to return and pay off the debt. This cycle is reinforced by contemporary agricultural policies which give landlords privileged access to land, resources, and credit, as the Human Rights Watch puts it.

Illiteracy means that the papers that the haaris sign with the landlords are often manipulated in such a way that the poor peasants remain in debt for life.

“We have been struggling since 1993 to extricate ourselves and all others who have been bonded by the ‘bhatta malikan’. In doing so, I have been attacked many times,” Puno Bheel says pointing to the bruises on his face.

“Madam Wakeela fought shoulders-to-shoulders with the poor workers against the cruel system.”


Breaking Free

The system of bonded labour should have ended in Pakistan after the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act was passed in 1992. But the landlords in Sindh, who should have prosecuted instead, 'operate' freely.

It was under these circumstances that the passionate Puno and the charismatic Wakeela started their struggle, demanding freedom for the bonded labourers from this exploitative institution. Conscious of their state, they raised their voice and created commotion. They 'moved'.

“The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) then helped us in reaching the courts and also provided us with moral and legal support whenever we needed it,” Wakeela recalls.

They were were both declared 'free' to lead a new life by the courts after a review of their debt.

According to Puno Bheel, 10 years ago they were given a piece of land in Tando Hyder, not much far away from the dreaded brick kilns, by an NGO to provide homes to the freed bonded labourers.

When asked what made her struggle to free herself and many other bonded labourers and defy traditions in a system where women are rarely allowed to be at the forefront, Wakeela said, “I was always concerned about my life and all other fellow workers whose future seemed at stake. I didn’t get frightened. It was less horrifying for me and more motivating. It was encouraging to initiate and carry on the struggle.”

The untiring efforts of Sindh Federation of the Bhatta Mazdoor Union and Ghulam Hyder of the Green Rural Development Organization and many other brave workers resulted in the creation of Azad Nagar Hari Camp in Tando Hyder, Hyderabad. It was like all the endeavours had congealed into an outcome.

Azad Nagar houses between 80 and 100 families who previously were shackled in bonded labour and worked in different brick kilns spread across the country. For them, life has changed but the struggle for freedom has not ended.


Freedom but not quite free

Kasturi, who lives in the Azad Nagar camp, has a very encouraging story to tell. She has been living in the camp for three years after being brought here by the union supported and assisted by an NGO from Mirpurkhas. Her whole family worked under a ‘zameendaar’ or the landlord who had made them serfs.

Life dramatically changed when she came to the camp as she started working on embroidery products. Kasturi now works out of free will to produce bangles, traditional kitchen products with beautiful embroidery locally known as ‘chabi’, and dolls for kids. She enjoys her work and feels emancipated.

“In an International Labor Conference held in Karachi, I sold all of my items within two hours that I had produced working for many months,” Kasturi says while describing her experience at the conference held at the 2013 Expo in Karachi.

“I sell a pair of ‘chabi’ at Rs1,200. It takes four days to make one. So, actually, I earn Rs300 per day provided that my products get sold, which they usually do.”

Kasturi’s smile speaks volumes of her liberation and the wings she has got after coming to the camp. Her husband still works at a kiln but she is far happier than other camp dwellers. The camp managers, having noticed this, are also working on the skill-training programs.

Kasturi doesn’t have to work under the exploitative system of bonded labor neither she has to go the kilns to get her hands dirty in the scorching sand with which bricks are made. She is now free to breathe fresh air after an age of inhaling the polluted, gaseous air present in the atmosphere of the kilns. She is, now, an inspiration for many. Her days in slavery are now done.

But then there are countess others like Aimal, who although free are not entirely in control of their lives.

Wakeela Rajput.
Wakeela Rajput.

Bilawal, Aimal's husband, works at a kiln as a free labourer now. The family, which hails from Umerkot, came to Azad Nagar after the devastating floods of 2010. The natural disaster provided them an opportunity to escape the kiln where they were being kept in debt bondage.

Aimal is a mother of six children; four boys and two girls. Only two of her children go to a school.

“We are happy here since we have got freed from our previous lives. Life here is different, though we still can't claim we are free to do anything. Generations after the other, we have only worked at kilns That's the only thing we know and the only kind of work my husband can find. I make meals, and clean the house while my husband is at work,” says Aimal.

“The only amusement we have is to talk to our neighbors; we share both plight and happiness with each other.”

Aimal wants more from life. Her family is free but absence of a comprehensive rehabilitation plan has again made her husband return to the gruesome life of kiln albeit with an increased salary and less authority from the owners.

“We do not have any other choice but to go again and toil in the kilns,” she says.

The lack of access to easy loans and grants through microfinance schemes and other safety nets offered by the government, means the 'free' families often turn back to the landlords for loans, the Global Slavery Index says. It also means that their new lives are limited to 'free' camps.

Aimal and Kasturi lives, though, saw a change and their freedom today very much owes to the struggle of Wakeela and Puno.

Puno Bheel works in the kilns till 12 in the afternoon and then spends his time with his comrades in struggle.

He is also called every now and then by the men at the kilns to intervene whenever a problem arises. “The owners are usually clever and cunning. They try to cheat their workers and rip them off their dues. That’s when I am called and I unhesitatingly intervene.”

Wakeela Rajput says that like many other fellow workers her life changed because now she is not entrapped at a kiln.

“Previously, we had to beg the owners to let us go and he would strictly forbid us. The owners were so cruel that we couldn’t take leave even during the last days of our pregnancy let alone attend the funerals of a loved one. This freedom was worth our struggle.”

There are 8 other camps like Azad Nagar, safe havens for the hundreds of freed labourers who have started new lives. Laudable it is for sure, but the government apathy towards a rehabilitation program for these pauperised men and women is incomprehensible.

Two decades have elapsed since the government passed an Act against the system of bonded slavery. The shadows of this institution still haunt Pakistan. The government devolved most legislative and enforcement powers to the provinces with a constitutional amendment in 2010, including responsibility for labour, child protection, and women’s protection. The provinces are yet to move on these issues.

How many Wakeelas and Punos will it take to end, once and for all, the insurmountable cruelty that is exists in the form of debt bondage?

Photos by Aqsa Ahmed and Syed Saad Arfin