As many as 4.5 million kiln workers and their generations are experiencing overburdened and bonded labour problems at around 18,000 brick kilns spread across Pakistan, according to a study by the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC).
“Ata Muhammad, 28, and his wife work for 18 hours a day at a kiln in the outskirts of Lahore, where they are paid Rs450 per 1,000 bricks, irrespective of how long it takes to complete the task,” the report stated.
It takes a family of five a whole day to make 1,000 bricks.
The tasks include fetching mud two or three kilometres away, soaking it in water, moulding it into bricks, transporting the finished product to the kiln and finally baking and grading each brick.
Credit line acts as a noose
In case of severe weather or illness, workers earn nothing and are forced deeper into debt, begging for loans from their employers who are happy to extend the line of credit, which acts as a noose.
The loans, known as an ‘advance’, or ‘peshgi’ in Urdu, are the root of all kiln workers’ woes, Secretary General of the Bonded Labour Liberation Front Ghulam Fatima told the AHRC.
Kiln owners extend loans for occasions such as marriage, births and deaths, in an effort to tie the workers more tightly into servitude, Fatima said.
This action is totally illegal, as ruled by the Supreme Court of Pakistan (in 1988). Under the law, a kiln owner can only release an advance equal to or less than two weeks’ wages, she said.
The minimum wage set by the government is Rs665.7 per 1,000 bricks, but kilns pay as low as Rs300, she further said.
The AHRC report noted that if the government ensured payment of minimum wages, most workers would be able to clear their debts.
General Secretary of All Pakistan Bhatta Mazdoor (kiln workers) Union Mehmood Butt told the AHRC that families of kiln workers carry price tags equivalent to their outstanding loans. By paying this amount, owners can effectively ‘purchase’ workers from one another, Butt told AHRC.
Runaway workers are traced by the help of police and local politicians and all the money spent during this exercise is added to their debt, according to Butt.
President of the Labour Education Foundation Khalid Mehmood pointed out that kiln owners prevent workers from getting Computerised National Identity Cards (CNIC). They even use armed gangsters to prevent workers from reaching the Nadra mobile registration centres.
“Once you have a CNIC, you can apply for social security registration, get enrolled on voting lists, benefit from welfare schemes, open bank accounts or apply for jobs. Kiln owners cannot afford all this,” he said.
Media spokesperson for the Punjab labour department Shaukat Niazi believes bonded labour cannot be eradicated without empowering the workers through education.
Niazi said that a project in the district of Kasur has set up 200 schools to educate 8,000 kiln workers’ children.
He said that the government was issuing soft loans to kiln workers to eliminate the advance payment system, was working towards registration of workers with the social security department and has set up a helpline to assist workers in demanding minimum wage and other rights granted to them under the law, the study report of AHRC concluded.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 3rd, 2012.