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Addressing Pakistan’s modern slavery problem

Updated October 16, 2017

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An ILO Report, released last month, has estimated that more than 40 million people are victims of modern slavery today.

Of these, 25m are engaged in forced labour and the other 15m are victims of forced marriages. There is also a gender and age dimension: 71pc of modern slavery victims are women and girls while one in four, i.e., 25pc are children.

There are many manifestations of modern slavery: forced labour including labour trafficking, sex trafficking including child sex trafficking, bonded labour and debt bondage, domestic servitude (in the form of domestic work), forced child labour (including begging), unlawful recruitment and child soldiers, and state imposed forced labour.

Data indicates that the sectors with the highest instance of forced labour worldwide are domestic work (24pc), construction (18pc), manufacturing (15pc) and agriculture and fishing (11pc).

Another interesting finding in the study is that multiple forms of coercion are used by employers or recruiters against the victims.

Nearly one-quarter of the victims had either their wages withheld or were unable to leave because of threats of non-payment of due wages. Other significant means of coercion included threats of violence, actual physical violence and threats against family.

These are alarming statistics. Last year, the Global Slavery Index 2016 estimated the number of modern slavery victims in Pakistan as 2.134m (1.13pc of the total population). In terms of absolute numbers, Pakistan ranked 3 (out of 167 countries) in this index after India (18.354m) and China (3.388m).

Using the above referred percentage of 1.13pc with the new population estimates of Census 2017 (207m), the potential number of victims rises to 2.34m in Pakistan.

Elimination of modern slavery by 2030 is part of Goal 8 (Target 8.7) of the Sustainable Development Goals of which Pakistan is a party.

Elimination of modern slavery by 2030 is part of Goal 8 (target 8.7) of the Sustainable Development Goals to which Pakistan is party

The United States Department of Labour (US DOL) alleges the use of forced labour in the following sectors in Pakistan: brick kilns, carpet weaving, coal mining and agriculture (cotton picking wheat and sugarcane industry).

Reports by US DOL also indicate the widespread existence of forced domestic work as a result of human trafficking, especially the engagement of child domestic workers working under forced labour conditions.

Different ILO studies, though a bit dated now, estimated that there are over one million bonded labourers in brick kilns and over 1.8m bonded sharecroppers in the agriculture sector.

A multi-faceted response is required which addresses the root cause of the problem along with the prevention, protection and rehabilitation of victims.

As recommended in the ILO report, the social protection system needs to be extended to the informal sector.

Since the leading cause for individual bankruptcies is medical related, either illness of a family member or death of a breadwinner.

Cash transfer schemes (Benazir Income Support Program or Khidmat Card), public employment programmes, health protections schemes (Federal Government’s Pakistan Sehat Card and KP Government’s Sehat Insaf Card) and various microfinance initiatives (like Akhuwat) can help in preventing the spread of forced labour.

Modern slavery can be dealt with by ensuring fundamental rights for all.

Since bonded labour is more prevalent in the agriculture sector (employing 43pc of the labour force) the government should formalise the sector by extending application of labour laws and rationalising tenancy legislation.

Sindh and Balochistan have allowed workers in the agriculture and fisheries sectors to form and join unions. Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces must follow suit.

The other sector with high incidence of forced labour is domestic work. Though Punjab and Sindh have announced domestic worker policies, legislation is still pending. Child domestic work must be treated as hazardous work which is prohibited for children under 18.

Modern slavery is linked with migration and trafficking thus necessitating effective governance of labour migration.

Quite a few Pakistanis are engaged in work abroad and a majority of our exported labour force is in the Middle East which is infamous for widespread exploitation of migrant workers engaged in domestic work as well as construction work.

The government has established Migrant Resource Centres in Islamabad and Lahore to provide pre-departure orientation and information on working and living conditions to outgoing migrants. Pakistan can go a step further by signing bilateral agreements with labour-receiving countries in the Middle East requiring decent working conditions for its emigrants.

There is also a need for labour law reform. Since withholding wages is the most common means of keeping a person in the situation of forced labour, wage payment laws should criminalise the practice except under conditions specified in the law.

Labour laws should be applicable to all sectors of economy and fundamental workers’ rights must be ensured for all types of workers. Once laws are enacted or reformed, there is a need for adequate enforcement and rigorous implementation of the same.

District vigilance committees, currently inactive or ineffective, need to be strengthened for countering bonded labour. These committees can also assist in rehabilitation of bonded labourers. The local government system can play an effective role in eliminating modern slavery.

The federal government has been working on a National Strategy for Elimination of Child and Bonded Labour which is a right step towards understanding the issue and dealing with it.

While laws in Pakistan criminalise all manifestations of modern slavery, statistics are scarce on the number of investigations initiated, violation found, prosecutions lodged and convictions achieved.

Unless, an evidence base is created by strengthening and extending national research and data collection, the actual issues will remain unresolved.

Different aspects of modern slavery are encountered by different sectors. Data and knowledge sharing among these departments and sectors is vital in dealing with the menace of forced/bonded labour. n

The writer is a labour specialist with WageIndicator Foundation.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, October 16th, 2017