Bonded Labour in Pakistan
Author: Kirsten O’Connell
Department: Pakistan Team
Bonded labour is widespread in Pakistan (Malik, 2016). UNICEF defines bonded labour as “an abuse analogous to slavery in which individuals are pledged to work either for a money lender or a landlord to repay a debt or loan.” UNICEF mentions Article 32 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child which deals with the protection of children against economic exploitation, since bonded labour applies to children and the right within Article 32 can therefore be invoked. It further mentions that bonded labour is defined by Article 1 (a) of the Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery (1956) as “the status or condition arising from a pledge by a debtor of his personal services as reasonably assessed is not applied towards the liquidation of the debt or the length and nature of those services are not respectively limited and defined (UNICEF, n.d.).” However, “there is considerable confusion over the term “bonded” labour and for this reason, perhaps, there is almost no empirical evidence to support the claims of the nature or extent of what is called “bonded labour” (Malik, 2016).
What is bonded labour?
The term bonded labour has been used interchangeably with the terms “debt bondage” and “modern slavery” because the person is enslaved (Malik, 2016). Landlords or employers exercise rights over the labourer who is indebted to them. They restrict the labourer from taking extra work elsewhere and control or manipulate over parts of their lives. For instance, if a family of bonded labourers has to visit family members in a different town for a wedding, they may be required to leave behind one adult of their family as a guarantee that the family will return to resume their work (Qureshi, 2016). However, bonded labour is probably the least known form of slavery today despite it being very common (Malik, 2016). The Global Slavery Index estimates that 3,186,000 people are held in modern forms of slavery in Pakistan, which ranks the country at 8th place among the world’s 167 countries with the highest prevalence of modern slavery (NRF, n.d). This is in spite of the introduction of the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act 1992 outlawing bonded labour. It thrives because of the power and influence landlords and employers have in rural and urban areas (Malik, 2016). The United Nations and the International Labour Organization (ILO) identify slavery as “the status of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership as exercised”, which means using people as objects instead of actual people with human rights (Anwaar, 2021).
What is the law regarding bonded labour in Pakistan?
Pakistan has ratified the ILO Convention No. 29 on Forced Labour (1957), ILO Convention No. 105 on Abolition of Forced Labour (1960) and ILO Convention No. 182 (2001 on the Worst Forms of Child Labour). Additionally, Pakistan has ratified the 1956 UN Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade and Institutions and Practices similar to Slavery, (t)he 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child; the Philadelphia Declaration adopted by the ILO in 1994 that stresses member States to observe the principles regarding freedom of association and expression and work without exploitation and compulsion. All of “those [legal] instruments clearly communicate that the fundamental commitment made by the State ratifying the Convention is to suppress the use of forced or compulsory labour in all its forms in the shortest possible time (Fatima & Qadir, 2013).”
Bonded labour is a violation of fundamental rights that the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan (Constitution) has guaranteed (Paycheck.pk, n.d). The Constitution contains a range of provisions with regards to labour rights found in Article 3 which vests in the State the responsibility to ensure the elimination of all forms of slavery. Article 11 prohibits all forms of slavery, forced labour and child labour. Article 17 provides for a fundamental right to exercise the freedom of association and the right to form unions. Article 18 describes the right to its citizens to enter upon any lawful profession or occupation and to conduct any lawful trade or business. Article 25 lays down the right to equality before the law and prohibition of discrimination on the grounds of sex alone. Article 37 (e) secures just and humane work conditions. Article 38 seeks socio-economic wellbeing of the people by raising their standard of living through adequate livelihood with reasonable rest and leisure (Fatima & Qadir, 2013). All these laws go together to deter the practice of bonded labour, slavery and coercion. The Supreme Court has also directed Pakistan to take immediate measures to check the bonded labour system (Fatima & Qadir, 2013).
Pakistan responded through the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act (1992). It stated “[o]n the commencement of this Act, the bonded labourer system shall stand abolished, and every bonded labourer shall stand freed and discharged from any obligation to render any bonded labour.” It also stated “[n]o 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.” Yet, despite the Act outlawing bonded labour, a law becomes irrelevant when it is not enforced effectively, and the act has not been implemented correctly. For instance, law enforcement officials lack the necessary personnel, training, and equipment to confront the armed guards who often oversee bonded laborers. These circumstances have hampered the effectiveness and enforcement of the Bonded Labor System (Abolition) Act and, since its passage in 1992, no convictions have been made under the Act (DOP, 2015). Furthermore, powerful landlords for example inhibit law enforcement officials from taking any positive action and discourage the workers from reporting it as a crime (Fatima & Qadir, 2013).
What does bonded labour involve:
The practice of bonded labour in Pakistan is commonly known as Peshgi. Instead of seeking wages in exchange for their work, poor workers take an advance from an employer until their debt is paid off. The loan (peshgi) may be taken for many reasons, for instance when the workers are in desperate need of money or food or when they see it as protection against unemployment. However, the loan ties them to a particular employer or landlord, who is perceived to have an obligation to continue employing them. The debts can also be so great that they are inherited from one generation to another (LHRD, 2022). Sociologists describe bonded labour as the prevalent form of modern slavery because many sectors of the economy in Pakistan thrive on this form of human exploitation, mainly in agriculture, brick – making and carpet – weaving sectors (DW, 2019).
“The landlords are a powerful class”, says Rizwan Minhas, a reporter and social activist in Kot Momin. “They control almost every aspect of the tenants lives. They keep them under close watch. [For instance] [w]ithout their permission, the tenants are not allowed even to speak to people from outside of their estates (DW, 2019).” Additionally due to unfair and often unwritten terms of the contract, entire families of labourers are pushed to work for employers to make ends meet. The work is usually very strenuous and most of the pay is expanded on paying back the loan. What further complicates things is the fact that the debt continues to increase as the labourers “use” the owners land and “eat their food”. If the debt is not paid, it is transferred from one generation to another. Many families remain enslaved for years as a result, in order to support their families, and still struggle to pay back the loan (Anwaar, 2021).
In such instances, the owners have control over the fate of the next generation. They manipulate the families as to whether their children go to school, whether family members receive medical attention and know how the family will plan their future (Anwaar, 2021). Furthermore, people who belong to lower castes of Muslims or religious minorities are often caught in bonded labour more than others (Anwaar, 2021). Ghulam Fatima, the founder of Bonded Labor Liberation Front, told Al Jazeera that “[t]he bricks that these workers make are used to make our houses, hospitals, schools, universities and parliament. But they never get the benefit from what they are making.” She further stated that “[t]he people are shelter less and deprived of every facility that those institutions offer. They get no education; health facilities and the laws and judicial systems are failing them”. The government of Pakistan has stipulated daily wages of 900 rupees for labourers but most of these workers only get half of it (Ghani, 2019).
It is also illegal in Pakistan to employ someone who is under 16 years of age. Yet almost 70 percent of bonded labourers in Pakistan are children, who make up over one third of the four million or so people working at brick kilns in Pakistan. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRC) reports a high mortality rate among children working at brick kilns, with about one in 20 families living in these brick kilns having children who have lost their eyesight. This is because the labourers live in deplorable conditions, the water they use to mix the soil gives them skin diseases and the hazardous fumes from the billowing back smoke during the brick making process causes asthma and other diseases and increases the risk of controlling tuberculosis (Ghani, 2019).
There are no proper sanitation facilities at the brick kilns or where the workers live. According to Fatima, if women have to go to the toilet they have to go in the open, either late night or early morning. The HRC also noted that “influential politicians and their relatives owned most of these brick kilns”. An excerpt from Bonded Labour stated “[i]t was common knowledge that the kilns owners, in collaboration with corrupt police officials, often got criminal cases registered against the labourers to keep them under their control.” Furthermore, a high ranking police officer in Lahore told Al Jazeera that the workers do not sign a contract when they are taken to a brick kiln. Most of them cannot read, so they have no way of finding out what is being added to their accounts (Ghani, 2019).
In conclusion, bonded labour in Pakistan will continue if proper changes are not made within the national and provincial governments. We have seen that despite the implementation of the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act in 1992 and the prohibitions within the Constitution of Pakistan and the ILO Convention(s) and Convention on the Rights of the Child, the issue of bonded labour is still occurring. We also know why and its because the power and influence landlords and employers have over law enforcement officials from taking any positive action for change. These people enslave their labourers for generations, and they threaten them from reporting any crime committed against them. If bonded labour is to be eradicated in Pakistan, it needs to begin with the federal and provincial governments taking genuine, independent and impartial action to properly implement the law and prevent any further influence of these landlords or employers.
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