The invisible slaves of Pakistan

Poor, needy and unskilled individuals are the primary raw material for our slave-manufacturing industry

Naeem Sadiq June 08, 2023
The writer is an Occupational Health & Safety professional also engaged in writing and advocacy on social issues. He can be reached at and tweets @saynotoweapons


You may think that a horrible chapter of human history has been closed for good. You might imagine that slavery is a thing of the past. The truth is just the opposite. Pakistan is home to about 18 million modern-day-slaves, an ignominy shared by very few other nations. They can be publicly seen cleaning the streets, standing at the entrance of every bank and government building, carrying luggage at the railway stations, filling fuel at the petrol stations or simply dying in the dark and poisonous coal mines of Pakistan. They are neither invisible nor imaginary. It is us who pretend to be visually challenged.

Modern-day slavery is being trapped in extreme poverty and being excluded from economic and social justice. The state of Pakistan and its immensely greedy elite have perfected the art of converting free citizens into modern slaves. Not counting the vulnerable 40 million stunted children (slaves in pipeline), Pakistan’s uneducated and runaway population, extreme poverty, joblessness, pathetic governance and apathetic citizenry provide just the right nutrients for the growth of slave industry.

Who are the 18 million modern-day slaves of Pakistan? They are the 12.5 million children engaged in domestic and industrial labour. They are the one million private security guards who are made to work for 12 hours a day for 30 days a month and paid half the legal wage. There are the 4 million bonded labourers who work in farms and kilns. The 200,000 exploited and cruelly paid daily-wage sanitation workers could easily be the most ill-treated modern slaves of Pakistan. There are 50,000 Railway coolies at 625 railway stations who must surrender 30% of their entire day’s earning to the contractor — for letting them lug the luggage. Also included in this unending list are the 200,000 employees who work for pittance on a 24 hour shift at 12,000 petrol stations of Pakistan.

Available in abundance, poor, needy and unskilled individuals are the primary raw material for our slave-manufacturing industry. They are forced to work on a system called deharri, which simply means that you have no rights, no appointment letter and you can be fired instantly. You get paid for the day you work and not for the day you are absent or sick. The daily-wagers are forced to accept abysmally low wages, for their other option is to die of hunger. The fact that every daily-wage or contracted sanitation worker in Sindh receives just about half of the legal minimum wage of Rs25,000 is no coincidence. The fact that one million private security guards in Pakistan are forced to work for 12 hours a day and paid Rs25,000 (or less) is no coincidence either. Sadly not a single private security guard in Pakistan receives his legally entitled benefits i.e. Rs52,000 per month (Rs26,000 for the first 8 hours and an additional Rs26,000 for the next 4 hours of overtime at twice the rate), along with EOBI, Social Security and four holidays.

The state has created fool-proof mechanisms to close the doors for those wishing to escape from slavery. This is accomplished by depriving the sanitation workers, security guards and others of their legal right to EOBI (pension) and Social Security registration. With zero pension to look forward to, they are compelled to continue working till they literally fall apart.

It is ironic that the slave manufacturing industry in Pakistan is designed and promoted by the government itself. It is led by the Labour and the Local Bodies departments who will overlook any violation for a price. The Social Security and EOBI Institutions are just too incompetent and prefer ‘under the table’ arrangements with the employers. The human rights organisations prefer speeches and seminars over practical measures that could eliminate these violations. Surely the beneficiary citizens of Pakistan are just as guilty. Perhaps we should vote for a leader only if he has a promise and a plan on how to lift the 18 million modern-day slaves of Pakistan from the deep well of wretchedness and indignity that they are trapped into.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 8th, 2023.

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