Home for the holidays: 21 kiln workers released in time for Christmas

Two families had moved a petition against bonded labour


Amel Ghani December 24, 2015
Two families had moved a petition against bonded labour. PHOTO: FILE

LAHORE:


Twenty one bonded workers at a brick kiln in Kasur were freed following a high court order, just in time to spend Christmas with their families. They belong to two Christian families and despite the hardships they have suffered, they look forward to a new beginning.


“I will never forget this Christmas. Even though we were not allowed to take any of our belongings from the kiln, it feels like a new beginning,” said Raphael Masih, one of the petitioners. He said he had been working at brick kilns for 11 years.

“Our family has worked at three kilns. Each time the owner sold us. We were told that the loan we owe had increased,” he said. The final price paid for Masih’s family was Rs2.2 million.

Masih said the owner would often beat and verbally abused them. He said he also forced his underage siblings aged to work. “He did not give us full salary for our work,” he said.

“We come here with nothing but the clothes on our back,” said Masih. “Despite this, we will pray on Christmas for people like us who have yet to escape the tyranny of their owners,” he said.

Freedom for Masih’s family came after a month-long struggle.

“When we tried to leave, the owner detained us,” he said. He said his family had been threatened twice when leaving the kiln and were forced to return.

“They kept an eye on our movements, ensuring they don’t leave the vicinity,” he said.

He said despite several complaints to police, no action had been taken. “The district labour officer came twice and the owner cursed at us in front of him,” he said.

“We will do anything but not return to working at kilns,” said Laveezah Bibi, Masih’s mother. She said she was tired of the degradation and humiliation they had suffered at the hands of the owners.

Shamim Bibi, whose family had also been freed through the petition, tells a similar story.

Pointing to her children’s torn clothes she said, “They beat us and threatened to throw my children in the fire if we tried to escape,” she said. Shamim said the family had been trying to find out where the kiln owner had taken her 17-year-old son Shahan.

“Everybody saw them take him and lock him up at the munshi’s quarters but they would not let him go,” she said. This, she said was a way to ensure that the family did not leave. Shamim was told by the owner he owed them Rs500,000.

Bonded Labour Liberation Front (BLLF) was their last hope.

“We moved court because all other avenues were closed,” says Ayaz Hussain, legal adviser to the BLLF. He said they had written to the government several times on the matter but had not received a response.

BLLF general secretary Syeda Ghulam Fatima though the court orders had forced the kiln owner to release the families, they had to leave their belongings behind.

“They were not asking for charity,” she said. Fatima said not having their belongings was an obstacle to their rehabilitation. “It is Christmas tomorrow and they have absolutely nothing,” she said.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 25th, 2015.

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