When the law promotes slavery

07 Apr 2016


THE Punjab bill on the prohibition of child labour in brick kilns is a double-edged weapon. Ostensibly, the bill is designed to end the evil of child labour in a fairly large sector, but it also aims to revive the curse of peshgi (an advance against wages), and thus legitimises bonded labour.

The bill provides for regulation of employment in brick kilns through a written contract (an appointment letter) between the worker and the employer, containing the terms of employment and the wages that have been promised. In a country where owners of brick kilns have stubbornly resisted the registration of their trade, and rarely disclosed the exact number of employees working for them, a new contract system can only be welcomed.

But other than this progressive step, the bill has an utterly retrogressive provision. The contract will include the amount of peshgi taken by the worker and the payback schedule. The way that peshgi registers are maintained, and debt arbitrarily inflated, is well known. Who will guarantee that employers do not include huge amounts of peshgis into their contracts?

The bill allows employers to give peshgi to workers, and also fixes a limit on the advance amount — equal to six times a worker’s wages for one wage period. It has been argued that the peshgi amount can go up to six figures. Besides difficulties in eliminating the exploitation of workers through account tampering, the provision destroys the foundation of the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, and the historic Supreme Court decision in 1988 which discontinued peshgi. On the basis of this verdict the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act of 1992 declared: “No person shall make any advance under, or in pursuance of the bonded labour system, or compel any person to render any bonded labour or other form of forced labour.”

The Punjab bill banning child labour in brick kilns is retrogressive in many ways.

The Supreme Court struck down peshgi after thorough research by experts and leading lawyers. The court had also based its verdict on an understanding between the petitioners (bonded workers) and employers.

Throughout the two decades in which the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act has been on the statute books (although it has never been sincerely enforced), employers have tried to subvert it through a variety of stratagems. The act has survived a challenge in the Shariat Court, and another in the Sindh High Court. It was also once denounced as a measure aimed at ruining Sindh’s agricultural economy. That this law — which overrides all other laws — would be undone under the cloak of curbing child labour, cannot be expected from any government that has the slightest respect for workers’ rights and their dignity.

It is a sad turn of events for bonded workers that Punjab has decided to legalise a slavery-like practice in utter violation of the Constitution (Article 11).

Concerning the part of the bill related to child labour, there are no two opinions on the employment of children in brick kilns; it is one of the worst forms of exploitation. These children are obliged to start work at a very tender age, sometimes as young as four years. The long hours of work, mostly under a blazing sun, adversely affect their physical and mental growth. The environment in which such children see many people (including their parents) — subjected to violence, deceit and all kinds of humiliation — destroys all possibility of their development into normal adults, and cultivating values of personal freedoms and dignity.

Thus, the initiative to eliminate child labour in brick kilns deserves to be supported — it is sound in principle. However, the success of the project will obviously depend less on the nature of the scheme, and more on the strategy of its implementation.

Has the government taken note of the following two factors that are likely to impede implementation of the project? First, how will parents be persuaded to forego their children’s contributions to family earnings, or be compensated for the shortfall caused by their children’s withdrawal from family labour?

Secondly, children will continue to live near brick kilns and remain exposed to these corrupt and exploitative environments, with little protection against employment after school hours. Since the exploitation of child and adult workers is inextricably linked with their dependence for housing provided by employers, a long-term policy to meet the housing needs of brick kiln workers has to be integral to any plan to end exploitation in this sector.

The bill bars the employment of children in brick kilns. If a child above the age of five is found at a brick kiln during school timings he shall be “deemed to have been employed, engaged or permitted to work at the brick kiln”. Violations are punishable with sealing of the brick kiln, simple imprisonment for seven days to six months, and a fine of Rs50,000 to Rs500,000. A key role has been assigned to the inspector, who will monitor implementation of the law, and on whose report all prosecutions will begin.

Under the proposed law ‘child’ means a “person who has not completed the fourteenth year of age”. This is contrary to global trends of raising the child age limit to eighteen, in keeping with the provisions of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Besides, an employer is referred to as ‘occupier’ in the bill, which makes no sense at all. Since the law deals with the employment of labour, the word ‘occupier’ should be replaced with ‘employer’. Whether the proposed law ensures that all children relieved of labour in brick kilns will in fact attend school is another challenge.

The best thing that the Punjab government can do is to restrict the bill to child labour, drop the effort to restore peshgi, and rewrite the scheme for con­­t­racts between workers and brick kiln owners.

Published in Dawn, April 7th, 2016