Iqbal Masih

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Campaigning on behalf of destitute children in Pakistan can earn millions for NGOs in the west. However, those millions are often spent to support lavish lifestyles of a few in the west while the destitute in Pakistan continue to suffer.

Each year, Canadians donate millions of dollars to not-for-profit organisations who are helping impoverished children in low-income countries. While many organisations receiving millions in donations for the poor in Pakistan help the needy, there is a cloud over the activities of some others.

For instance, there is considerable controversy about Free the Children, a not-for-profit started in Toronto by Craig and Marc Kielburger while they were only teenagers.  Free the Children and its sister organisations campaign against child labour and create opportunities for the youth to help other youths in need.  While Kielburgers’ hard work and commitment is commendable, one is dismayed at the way Free the Children has been using a false story about the murder of a child labourer in Pakistan to further its cause over the past 16 years.

It all started in April 1995 when Craig Kielburger reportedly read a story in The Toronto Star about Iqbal Masih, a child labourer who was sold into bonded labour by his parents. According to the story, Iqbal worked for years as a slave labourer until he was freed with the help of Ehsanullah Khan, who then headed the Bonded Labour Liberation Front (BLLF) in Pakistan. The Toronto Star story claimed that the “carpet mafia” in Pakistan orchestrated Masih’s murder.

After reading the story in The Toronto Star Craig Kielburger sprang into action and started Free the Children, which now has a worldwide reach. Since 1995, Craig and Marc Kielburger have run campaigns to build schools and assist communities in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. However, Kielburgers’ campaign against child labour in Pakistan has cost millions of dollars in lost export contracts that forced the very same workers they intended to help into abject poverty and a life of begging and misery.

The news story in the Toronto Star was reported by Kathy Gannon of the Associated Press on April 18, 1995. Ms. Gannon quoted Ehsanullah Khan (BLLF) who claimed that Iqbal Masih’s was murdered at the behest of the “carpet mafia”. Mr. Khan misrepresented the facts about Masih’s tragic death and used it audaciously to advance his campaign against the carpet manufacturers. Ms. Gannon, a seasoned reporter, quickly caught on after interviews with the witnesses and Iqbal’s family revealed a different picture. She filed another story the very next day that explained how and why Iqbal Masih died.

Tahir Ikram of Reuters in Pakistan also reported on the story after visiting Iqbal Masih’s family. Based on the eye witness accounts and police reports Ikram reported that Iqbal Masih, while riding a bike in the fields with his cousins Liaquat Masih (10) and Faryab Masih (17), ran into a man having sex with a donkey. The man panicked and fired shots at the boys killing Iqbal, while injuring his cousins.

An independent inquiry by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan also concluded that the carpet industry in Pakistan was not behind Iqbal Masih’s murder. Inayat Bibi, Iqbal Masih’s mother, also told Reuters that she did not believe her son was murdered by the carpet industry.

Since then, the story of Iqbal Masih’s death has taken a life of its own. Millions of dollars have been raised in his name to free children from bonded labour, to build schools, to dedicate daycares in his honour, and to stage plays against child labour. Every time Iqbal Masih is remembered, a false account of his death is reiterated creating more hardships for the struggling carpet weavers in Pakistan.

While millions have been raised in Iqbal Masih’s name, not a penny reached his destitute family. The Friday Times, a Lahore-based weekly, reported after Iqbal Masih’s death that his family had no knowledge of the thousands of dollars awarded to him in 1994 when he visited the United States to receive the Reebock’s Human Rights award.

Kielburgers have also run with Iqbal Masih’s story and have repeated ad nauseam the false version even when the true accounts were reportedly almost immediately after Masih’s tragic death. Writing in The Toronto Star in May 2007, the brothers again narrated the false account accusing the carpet manufacturers of Iqbal’s death. They wrote that “Iqbal Masih, a Pakistani child labourer turned child-rights activist ... was killed for speaking out against the carpet industry that had him working in shackles at the age of 4.”

Free the Children website repeats the same false story about the carpet manufacturers threatening Iqbal Masih and his family. According to the website Iqbal Masih “travelled to Sweden and the US to speak out against child labour. When he returned to Pakistan in April 1995, Iqbal was shot and killed.”

It is difficult to comprehend why Kielburgers and the Canadian news media continue to portray a false account of Iqbal Masih’s death. Does the false account of his death make a better news story or help invoke the kind of response from potential donors that would generate millions in charity? The Kielburgers raised $23 million in 2009 alone. According to the Globe and Mail, "Free the Children, and KPI, and Me to We [two for profit companies owned by Kielburgers] dropped $11,288,500 on four offices and eight homes in 53 months.

While Kielburgers have been generating millions in charity, the carpet weavers in Pakistan have been struggling. The damage done by Keilburgers to the already struggling economy of Pakistan is huge. Kielburgers refuse to realise that their well-intended, yet misguided, efforts  have prevented carpet weaving from growing in Pakistan at a very opportune time.

Pakistan was set to become a leading exporter of hand woven carpets in the mid-90s. After the Taliban took over Afghanistan in 1994, thousands of Afghan artisans fled to Pakistan, including master carpet weavers. Pakistan’s carpet weavers were no match for the Afghans and over the years had lost to the competition from Afghanistan, Iran, and India. The arrival of Afghan carpet weavers in Pakistan started a cottage industry and the craft started to expand from the Frontier Province to neighbouring Punjab.

The boom in carpet exports never materialised. Kielburgers’ campaign against child labour in Pakistan and the news coverage of Iqbal Masih’s death at the hands of carpet manufacturers killed the very dream of a vibrant carpet weaving industry in Pakistan, which could have provided millions of destitute households with food and shelter.

In April 1995 alone, export contracts worth $10 million were cancelled. Pakistan exported $205 million of carpets and rugs during 1995/96. A loss of $10 million for the carpet weaving industry was substantial. Exports of carpets fell in the next two years even when the prospects for growth had never been better; all this occurred because of a false story told thousands of times that painted an evil image of the carpet industry in Pakistan.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and other agencies have been working for decades to improve the plight of workers in Pakistan. The Supreme Court of Pakistan through the Bonded Labour (Abolition) Act in 1992 declared bonded labour illegal and cancelled all obligations (debts) of bonded labourers to their employers. The implementation of the act though left much to be desired.

The Federal Bureau of Statistics in 1999 estimated 3 million child workers in Pakistan. UNICEF and other government agencies estimate a large number of children are employed in carpet weaving in Pakistan. Most such children work alongside their parents on looms installed in their homes. A small per centage of looms are installed in factories. While child labour laws could be enforced in factories, the same could not be done for child workers employed in their homes.

Abject poverty forces parents to put their young children to work rather than sending them to schools. Working alongside their adult relatives, child workers in Pakistan weave carpets, stitch soccer balls, create embroidery, or work in the fields. They are the ‘fortunate’ ones because they remain under their parent’s watch while they work.

Banning child labour or boycotting products from Pakistan would only make the lives of these children even harder. Out of work, these children will be forced into begging, prostitution, and now terrorism. A large number of suicide bombers in Pakistan are young children who were handed over to the extremists by their parents who could not afford to even feed their children.

It would be foolhardy to push countries like Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan to enforce child labour laws. It would be even more misguided to boycott products from these countries. By doing so, the consumers and governments in the West would only perpetuate misery. A better option is to engage these countries in trade so that the parents of child labourers could find gainful employment. If the parents earn enough to feed and clothe their children, they would be more inclined to send their children to school rather than having them work.

Click here to read the response from Free the Children in regards to this blog.

Murtaza Haider, Ph.D. is the Associate Dean of research and graduate programs at the Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University in Toronto.  He can be reached by email at

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.



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