LAHORE: “Give us social security – it is our right. Ensure enforcement of minimum wage and we won’t need incentives to send our children to school,” Bhatta Mazdoor Union leaders said at a protest rally held at Lahore Press Club on Monday. The protest was called off after government officials assured the union leaders that they would address their concerns on priority.
Earlier, over 1,000 brick kiln workers from several districts had gathered in front of the Press Club at around 11am. They held banners and placards and shouted slogans demanding the implementation of laws granting them several rights in the Ordinance 2016 Prohibiting Child Labour at Brick Kilns.
The protesters said the government had removed children from brick kilns last month but told them that they would get books and their parents would get a stipend from April 1. They said this had created a sizeable dent in their income and they were struggling to make ends meet.
Safia Bibi, an elderly brick kiln worker from Sheikhupura, said her grandson was 14 years old and would be married in two years’ time. “What class would he be admitted in? He’s never been to school. Moreover, the nearest public school is an hour’s walk from where we live. The government should start by opening up schools near brick kilns.”
Shouts of Hamaray bachay dakhil karo (Admit our children to schools) and Paishgi khatam karo (End debt bondage) rang throughout the demonstration. The protesters waved red flags and shouted slogans against what they described as government’s disdain for brick kiln workers.
Nazli Javed, the Awami Workers Party labour secretary, said women formed the backbone of the Bhatta Mazdoor Union.
Law Minister Rana Sanaullah has been supporting brick kiln owners from the start, Aslam Meraj of the Labour Qaumi Movement said. “No one supports the weak and powerless.”
“They want the best possible health and education facilities for their children while our children are doomed to a life of slavery,” he said.
Union leader Anwar Gujjar said the government must ensure enforcement of minimum wage. “When Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif visited the brick kiln at Jiya Bagga, he should have asked the kiln workers if they were being paid Rs962 for 1,000 bricks.” He said in most cases, brick kiln workers received Rs500 per 1,000 bricks. “Half of that is deducted towards paishgi… what are we left with?”
Shehzad Masih, a brick kiln worker from Bahawalpur district, said he had four children and was paid Rs450 per 1,000 bricks. “It was hard to make ends meet as it is. Child labour has been banned at brick kilns but our children haven’t been given books. We won’t get the stipend promised for a few months and have reached breaking point.”
The speakers claimed that Bhatta Mazdoor Union leaders in several districts had been harassed and some of them, including the union’s leader in Nankana Sahib, had been arrested for planning the rally in Lahore the day Istanbul’s mayor was scheduled to arrive.
They claimed that the police had sent back several buses carrying brick kiln workers who had arrived in Lahore from other districts.
Khalid Mehmood of the Labour Education Foundation congratulated the Bhatta Mazdoor Union for not bowing to government pressure. “The bricks that built Raiwind were made by these hands… keep up the exploitation and the same hands will tear down rulers’ palaces.”
Later, Labour Secretary Ali Sarfaraz, Punjab Labour Director Dawood Ahmad and Lahore Labour Director Hasnat Javed held talks with the protesters represented by Baba Latif, Aslam Meraj, Mehmood Ahmad Butt and Khalid Mehmood.
The government representatives agreed to add a clause to the ordinance waiving pending debt payments. They said criteria would soon be developed for awarding scholarships to school-going children and stipends to their families. They said the arrested union leaders would be released immediately and a campaign would be started against child labour.
The organisers called off the protest at 7pm.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 16th, 2016.