Brick kiln workers: the endless battle

Bonded labor flourishes amidst kiln owners' brutalities and the government's acquiescence. Haroon Janjua with the report

Brick kiln workers: the endless battle
Despite the mud on her hands and the housework remaining to be done, 50-year-old Yasmeen, a bonded laborer, still offered a tired smile. A small settlement has sprung up where she lives with her six children, inside a single room of a mud hut. Their only possessions are a bed, two chairs and a small table. Apart from the scant furnishings, the leftovers from lunch and a bony goat scouring the soil for crumbs are all one can see in her home.

Indebted to a kiln owner for decades, she lamented, “I don’t even remember the exact year when I came here to work in order to repay the money actually taken by my husband who had died in 2004. My children grew up here and now they are the part of the same system.”
Labor laws are not applicable to these workers due to the informal nature of their work

Yasmeen is one of the estimated one million bonded laborers working in Pakistan’s brick-making kilns, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO).

“While Yasmeen, and many of the one million other men, women and children, according to ILO continue to be employed as bonded laborers in brick kilns.”

Bonded labor means service arising out of loan, debt or advance. It represents the relationship between a creditor and a debtor wherein the latter undertakes to mortgage his services – or the services of any of his family members – to the former for a specified or unspecified period with or without wages. This is accompanied by denial of choice of alternative avenues of employment, or denial of freedom of movements.
Laborer Muhammad Aslam resting after the day's work

In Pakistan, kiln laborers are frequently held in bondage, which forces them to work permanently against the advance grand cash amount. These laborers are generally uneducated and poor who are left with few options. They often accept whatever amount is offered in exchange for years of bonded labor.

A weak economy in Pakistan has set the stage for unemployment, poverty, and an upswing in radicalization. Poverty is the key factor for the involvement of people in anti-state militancy, while a larger portion of people involved in militants activities are laborers or their offspring. Female vendors selling utensils, brick kiln workers and even women who earn a living by stitching footballs, are facing labor issues such as low wages, harassment and poor working conditions. Inflation has been rapidly increasing, while the wages are not being improved, hence leading to poverty.
Pakistan ranks third on the Global Slavery Index

Laborers in these informal sectors are unrecognized while labor laws are not applicable to these workers due to the informal nature of their work.  Their living condition is alarming, showing deprivation, with lack of basic amenities throwing them in a vicious cycle of poverty.

Justice and Peace Commission Executive Secretary Hyacinth Peter during a consultation session on ‘Existing Laws to Stop Bonded Labor: Gaps and Recommendations’ in March this year, said Pakistan ranked third in the Global Slavery Index (GSI).

“More than two million people are enslaved in Pakistan. The problem is most severe in the Punjab and Sindh. The sale and purchase of brick kiln labor has become a profitable business. Peshghi is being transferred from one generation to the next as in property cases. Bonded labor is common in the brick kiln sector. A majority of brick kilns are located in Punjab. There is no implementation of the Bonded Labor System Abolition Act. The word of the kiln owner is the law,” Peter said.

Brick kilns in Rawalpindi
Brick kilns in Rawalpindi

Punjab and Sindh especially are “hotspots” of bonded labor in sectors like brick making.

“The sale and purchase of brick kiln labor has become a profitable job. Pakistan got freedom in 1947 but brick kiln laborers could not get freedom from bonded labor till today,” Peter added.

ILO estimates that a minimum of 11.7 million people are forced into bonded labor in the Asia-Pacific region. Bonded labor – or debt bondage – is probably the least known form of slavery today, and yet it is the most widely used method of enslaving people. Most bonded laborers remain in debt for the remainder of their lives, with that debt often being passed on to their children.

The Gujjar brick kiln where Shama and Shehzad were killed
The Gujjar brick kiln where Shama and Shehzad were killed

“Pakistan has ratified as many as 34 international labor conventions,” said Frida Khan, National Project Coordinator ILO Islamabad.

“This means that the government has committed to working with employers and workers to ensure that women and men in Pakistan work in conditions of safety and security, get a fair remuneration for their work, are allowed to organize and advocate for their rights and have adequate protection in case of ill health, accidents or unemployment, and are not discriminated against on the basis of their sex, religion or ethnicity,” she said.

The problem lies with the informal economy where labor laws do not extend and are not enforced, leaving workers vulnerable to exploitation. According to Federal Board of Revenue (FBR) the informal economy is massive, estimated to be 37 percent of Pakistan’s total economy. Absorbing a large number of laborers for whom secure, regulated employment is simply not an option.
"Fifty percent [of] brick kiln laborers don't have a National Identity Card"

“In Pakistan, the growing informal economies run many risks. The nature of the informal sector exhibits income insecurity and lack of social mobility,” said Mahar Safdar Ali, a veteran labor rights activist.

Safdar said that protecting the rights of laborers within the informal economy is difficult largely due to the absence of legally enforceable contracts.

How bonded labor proliferates

According to registration data compiled by the directorate of labor welfare, Punjab, and Bonded Labor Liberation Front Pakistan (BLLFP), there are more than 10,000 brick kilns operating in Punjab, where 2.3 million brick kiln labors are operating as of 2014. Out of these kilns nearly half of the workers were registered. The remaining half have not been registered due to various reasons including incomplete information or temporary closure of the work at the kiln.

“Fifty percent [of] brick kiln laborers don’t have their National Identity Card (NIC)” said Syeda Ghulam Fatima, General Secretary (BLLFP).

A young laborer inside Mandra brick kiln near Rawalpindi
A young laborer inside Mandra brick kiln near Rawalpindi

“At this point, we have facilitated 10,000 kiln labors for registration at their work place. Since they are bound to not take leave from work so government staff in mobile van came here for registration. Still there are many left unregistered,” she added.

Kiln owners exploit the laborers, underpaying them or setting unreasonable goals of 2,000 bricks a day for Pakistani Rupees 600, BLLFP informed. The already low wages are cut for work not done, a situation workers try to avoid by bringing in the whole family – including children – to help meet daily quotas. A number brick kilns workers narrated such a situation.

The brick kiln laborers are exploited in Pakistan in various ways. The labor rights activists and members of the civil society are urging the brick kiln industry to shift the payment system primarily for the female laborers, in order to get direct and timely payments. In Pakistan, thousands of the brick kiln women laborers are not being paid directly, while the industry has no record of these women, their work and earnings.
Kiln owners set unreasonable goals of 2,000 bricks a day for Rs 600

The brick kiln workers are skilled laborers not readily available in the market, unlike general labor. Hence, they are kept in bondage, against a certain cash amount and live permanently on kilns. Some of the kiln workers have passed their entire lives there and their children are also facing the same situation now.

It serves interests of both the owner and the poor laborers, allowing the labor to be paid for as much effort as the kiln-owners may want and somehow also providing the laborers with a dwelling and constant means of sustenance.

Bonded laborers in Sindh
Bonded laborers in Sindh

Exploitation by owner and the state

In Kot Radha Kishan, the kiln where a Christian couple was burned to death over alleged blasphemy charges on November 4, 2014, the police had arrested a laborer during my visit there. Hanif Akbar, 38, was forced into bonded labor without any written agreement as confirmed by the police.

According to the The Bonded Labor System (Abolition) Act 1992, it is a crime to enslave anyone in Punjab. Interestingly, no other province has adopted this law after the 18th constitutional amendment. It shows that bonded labor is considered legal in other provinces. Lawyers representing brick kilns workers cases in Lahore and Rawalpindi, who have freed several workers, said that without a swift justice system things will not change.

The barbaric murder of Shahzad Masih and his pregnant wife Shama Bibi in Kot Radha Kishan jolted the world. However, recently William Stark of International Christian Concern (ICC) said, “As observers of persecution, we focus on the direct victims: the people accused of blasphemy and then killed.”
Punjab and Sindh especially are 'hotspots' of bonded labor

“Something we don’t talk about enough, I think, is secondary victims: the children of the victims,” he added.

Standing amid the crowd of 30 brick kiln labors, holding a muddy spade in his hand, Ejaz Massih, a kiln laborer argued during the collective rights debate (on ways to ensure labor rights) with members of NGOs during my visit at one of the kilns situated in the outskirts of Lahore. “I have no concerns with the rights until I am getting my wage at the end of the day, no matter if my fellows are getting paid or not.”

“We are blamed for exploitation of labor and debt bondage. In all different types of work, including textile, agriculture and even government employees are taking loans. We are paying labor on the basis of skilled or unskilled labor categories. The skilled fine brick maker is paid more than the rough brick maker,” said Abdul Haq, General Secretary Brick Kiln Owners Association of Pakistan.

Labor unions have not yet come out of their falling for short term privileges that are frequently granted to them. However, in the long run their efforts and movements are often blunted and as such their strategic goals are forever far from their grasp. The strategic goals, still elusive, include allocation of finances and assurance of those funds for their welfare and care, and firmly establishing a fair minimum wage standard in every sector.  Labor welfare cannot be assured unless the employers and workers’ voices are not considered as integral part of the policy making process. Lack of effective and assertive unions is the actual reason for exploitation of millions of workers.

Yasmeen busy working in a brick kiln near Lahore
Yasmeen busy working in a brick kiln near Lahore

The hard reality

Muhammad Aslam, 65, lives in the same neighborhood as Yasmeen and works at the same kiln. “I have passed my entire life working on brick kilns, seen scores of deprived workers, men, women and children battered by owners,” he said, puffing on a hookah.

“The kiln owners are so powerful that despite illegal activities to enslave labors, like not paying and under-paying the owners they have never been charged by the government. I can’t remember a single incident,” said Aslam.

“This sector makes extensive money due to bonded labor”, said Zakaria Nutkani, working with Action Aid Pakistan. There is an organized demand and supply chain in the whole process. Despite various legislations the exploitation and oppression is still continuing unabated.

Rights activists have urged the government to assure ethical considerations in the selling process of bricks for government run infrastructure procurement. The agenda should be devised so that the government and big contractors do not buy from unregistered kilns where labors are exploited, unpaid, underpaid or where child labor is found.

Ishrat Ali, Secretary Labor Department Punjab, said: “Despite the formation of an eighteen member committee to sight cases in Punjab, the endeavor to stop bonded labor under the Labor Abolition Act has proven fruitless due to proliferation of bonded labor culture in Punjab. The government is not interested in boycotting those kilns where minimum wage is not paid or child labor used.”

From purchasing food to dowries to hospital visits, in fact all surviving practice, there is no reason for these poverty-stricken laborers to go to their employer for a loan which they can never pay back. Once the debt kicks off, the brick kiln owner has no excuse to continue adding to it, which ensures that the worker has no opportunity of ever paying it off.

Haroon Janjua is a freelance journalist based in Islamabad, Pakistan. He is 2014 International Green Apple Award winner. He can be reached at Twitter @JanjuaHaroon