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To find a way out

August 07, 2016

Bonded labour constitutes one of the gravest violations of individual human rights. Its presence in any society poses a serious challenge not only to the people who are bonded, but also to all individuals and institutions. Bonded labour is a coercive and oppressive labour arrangement. It is perceived — both at the popular level, as well as among legislators and the judiciary — as akin to slavery. Any labour arrangement involving the loss of an individual’s liberty and where physical restriction and violence against the person are accepted norms is abhorrent. Some types of personal abuse — such as child labour, sexual exploitation and rape — must be explicitly included in the category of violence against the person. These and other forms of abuse exist in Pakistan in a range of social and economic relationships. They are not limited to instances where people are held in chains, but also exist in less conspicuous settings where the chains are the invisible ones of social control. This chapter is premised on the understanding that bonded labour is usually disguised as legitimate ‘voluntary’ economic transactions. A range of activities with some level of coercion might come under the purview of legalistic definitions of bonded labour yet there are other activities that fall outside it. There also some activities which fulfil the legal definition of bonded labour but may not be particularly oppressive or coercive. The violation of the person is, only the most conspicuous and extreme form that ‘bondedness’ might take. The main objective of this chapter, therefore, is to comment on a range of labour, credit, and labourercredit arrangements that exist in domestic work and begging and their social and political dimensions.


An in-depth study of the exploitation of bonded labour in domestic situations


A common view on bonded labour is that it is a system based on the interlocking of labour and credit arrangements. In addition to the transaction in the labour market, a worker also transacts with the employer on the credit market, repaying the debt by working for the creditor. The employercreditor enjoys monopolistic power visavis the workerborrower and thus is able to impose exploitative terms and conditions in both transactions. The worker is considered a bonded labourer if the terms faced on either or both markets are extraordinarily exploitative, and allow no exit from either or both sets of contracts. This abstract model of bonded labour finds an apparently straightforward empirical counterpart in the peshgi system that prevails in many informally organised sectors in Pakistan. In the peshgi, or advance payment, system, a workerborrower contracts a cash or kind advance — in the case of agricultural tenants the advance is in the form of a production credit — from the employercreditor. The workerborrower then works on a piece-rate or wagerate basis, and a part (in some cases all) of his earnings goes to repay the advance. The workerborrower cannot change employers or locations as long as the loan remains unpaid unless the new employer takes over the loan, thereby becoming the creditor. The role of the peshgi system is thought to be crucial in the understanding of bonded labour in Pakistan. This chapter shows that the peshgi system exists in domestic service but not in begging. Cases of coercive peshgi contracts in the domestic work sector between employers and employees in rural areas, and between urban employers and employees of a common rural background are presented in some detail. The chapter argues that although labour bonding through peshgi is absent in the begging sector, some labour arrangements come very close to outright slavery.

The data was collected by using a number of qualitative research tools including community profiling, key informant interviews, informal and formal interviews, case studies, and observations. The geographic focus of the study were the districts of Lahore and Sargodha in Punjab, and Karachi and Sanghar in Sindh, and the fieldwork was carried out between December 2002 to January 2003.

Domestic Work

Domestic work is often regarded as a sector in which workers are highly vulnerable to coercion and abuse. The international debate on forced labour pays a great deal of attention to the possible association of domestic work with trafficking, child labour, and physical and sexual abuse. In many countries young women migrants, the vast majority of domestic workers, are particularly vulnerable to abuse by employers and/or by the authorities if they are illegal migrants. They may also be cut off from their own families and social networks. Domestic work has the added complexity in that the workplace is someone’s home. Unlike work that takes place in a recognised ‘workplace’ environment, domestic service occurs in an environment that is likely to be marked by highly personalised relations and extraordinary dependence between employer and employee. Formal laws as well as informal social norms governing employer-employee relations may have less significance than traditional and familial norms of behaviour.

The Pakistani state is unable to implement existing labour legislation in the formal sectors and lacks the will and ability to monitor conditions in the informal sectors that are well beyond its current reach. Moreover, the private home is believed to be a female sphere, true to the structure of a deeply patriarchal state and society. The public sphere is male-dominated and the private sphere the realm of the female so it is inappropriate and undesirable for the former to investigate the latter’s functioning too closely. Therefore, the domestic service sector remains largely undocumented and an informal part of the economy. Domestic work is performed by men, women, or children. It includes tasks like gardening, guard duty, driving, cooking, serving meals, cleaning, dishwashing, clotheswashing, sweeping, dusting, ironing, childcare, massaging. Domestic service is availed by the elite of a given community, be it a village, town, or urban neighbourhood, and the service providers are among the poorest and most vulnerable in rural and urban society. The contractual agreement between the employer and the employee or his/her family is often unwritten, nonbinding, and heavily biased in favour of the employer.

Labour Arrangements

The labour arrangements in this sector vary according to rural and urban settings and the backgrounds of the employers and workers. Castebased domestic service in the home of a landlord often involves bondedness and is regarded as the most oppressive of labour arrangements. Domestic service in urban centres offers some opportunities for advancement to those for whom the alternatives are begging, brick kiln work, or bonded labour in agriculture. In a large urban centre, it also becomes possible for some domestic workers to enter into a more organised sector through the mediation of domestic service employment agencies. The caste and class dimension play an important role in shaping the labour arrangements for both rural and urban domestic workers. Whereas this is true for urban-based domestic workers to some extent, in rural settings the workers have very little opportunity to explore other incomegenerating strategies or to change their employer in case of extreme exploitation.

In rural areas, domestic servants come from a castebased or classbased community of agricultural workers who are dependent on their landlord. Exploitation of the workers stems from the absolute power and control wielded by the landlord. Sometimes, caste affiliations with the type of labour one is required to provide are hard to shed even after gaining employment in the government sector. For example; a doctor in Shahdadpur had a government job in the district health office. He was also a local landlord. He used another lowranking government employee, who came from a low caste in his village, as his personal servant. They both drew their salaries from the government, but neither of them performed their official duties. A common practice for compensation for domestic work in rural areas is to pay in kind, usually wheat at the time of harvest. A Makhdoom landlord in Sargodha who owned 16 murabas of land in his village had five fulltime servants in his city house. All of them were compensated with fixed amounts of wheat per annum from his lands. Men and women domestic servants with nonlanded employers also receive occasional food and clothing. However, this is not in lieu of their salaries, but in addition to their monthly remuneration.

Workers in these situations do not receive adequate remuneration for their domestic work to pay off their debt. They are, therefore, not free to choose their employers. They may be bought and sold by way of landlords assuming the loan arrangements from one another, without their participation in the decision. Debts are accumulated on the workers because of their need to borrow from the landlords on occasions like marriages. One rural Punjabi family of tenants/domestic workers got into debt because a relative demanded Rs50,000 before agreeing to a watta satta marriage. The family requested their landlord to lend them the money. The landlord, in turn, arranged for another landlord to pay the sum in return for the labour of one of the young daughters of the tenants. The daughter was thus sent to this landlord’s house as a domestic servant where she would work to pay off the family debt with her labour. In another household in Lahore, a 12yearold girl worked for the landlord in his house and her father worked on the landlord’s farms in Sargodha. They ‘received’ 20 maunds of wheat and 20 maunds of rice per annum for their combined labour, but the rice was actually never given, and held back to repay the Rs60,000 loan on the father.

The above excerpt is taken from the chapter ‘Bonded Labour in Domestic Work and Begging’.

Excerpted with permission from
Bonded Labour in Pakistan
Edited by Ayaz Qureshi and Ali Khan
Series Editor Ayaz Khan
Oxford University Press
ISBN: 978-0199403899
214pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, August 7th, 2016