Bonded by evil: Brick-kiln workers continue to bake amid owners’ cruelty

Several workers from Punjab came to capital for 3-day exhibition on bonded labour.


Photo Muhammad Javaid/waqas Naeem September 15, 2013
The exhibition showcased photos of Bonded Labour Liberation Front and brick-kiln workers movements’ struggle in Punjab. Through paintings and portraits, the exhibition tries to highlight the plight of workers. PHOTO: MUHAMMAD JAVAID/EXPRESS

ISLAMABAD:


In August this year, Muhammad Akram, a brick-kiln worker from Mandi Bahauddin, demanded fair wages from the kiln’s owners. Instead, the owners, outraged by the demand for basic rights, kidnapped and tortured the 35-year-old man before implicating him in a false criminal case.


Akram said the owners made numerous death threats after he tried to contact the police and are demanding that he pay them Rs50,000, or they will get him arrested.

This unfortunate tale is the story of a majority of the 4.5 million brick-kiln workers in Pakistan, some of whom travelled to the capital from different areas of Punjab to attend a 3-day photo and painting exhibition on the lives of bonded labourers.

The exhibition is being organised by Bonded Labour Liberation Front (BLLF) and Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) Pakistan, a German political foundation, at the Pakistan National Council of the Arts.

According to the brick-kiln workers, they are forced into bonded labour, denied minimum wages and harassed and implicated in fake cases if they try to resist the oppression of influential brick-kiln owners.

“The Punjab government has fixed minimum wage at Rs740 per 1,000 bricks, but owners give us less than Rs300,” said Gulzar Masih, a brick-kiln worker from district Kasur. “The owners sell the same bricks at around Rs7,000 per 1,000 bricks in the market.”

Baking 1,000 bricks takes a minimum of two workers and at least a full day, workers said. The owners cut “advance” from the wages — money that they had lent to the workers during a week’s work — so workers usually do not get more than Rs150 for a batch of bricks, which means only Rs75 daily wage for one worker.

The labourers said owners want to “break their backs” so the workers can never ask for their rights.

“Unless there is pressure from higher-ups in the federal and provincial governments, the pitiful condition of workers is not going to change,” Akram said.

The misery of the brick-kiln workers persists despite recent suo moto intervention by the Supreme Court, said BLLF Executive Member Mahar Safdar Ali.

In August, the apex court had issued a ruling that brick-kiln workers should be issued social security cards under the Employees’ Social Security Ordinance 1965. The court also forbade the owners from giving loans to workers that amount to more than 15 days of wages.

The order was meant to curb the practice of brick-kiln owners forcing their workers into debt cycles they can never pay off. In addition, because the debt is illegally transferred to heirs on death, it forces the workers and their future generations to work for the same owners.

Ali said only 14,000 workers — not even 0.5 per cent of the total workforce — have so far been issued social security cards, and that too was only because the Supreme Court intervened.

Ali said the Brick-Kiln Owners Association should be disbanded as it is guilty of violating laws and its members are forcing workers into bonded labour.

Federal Minister for Ports and Shipping Kamran Michael attended the exhibition’s opening ceremony. Michael said flaws in implementation were robbing workers of their rights.

“Laws to protect workers already exist, but their implementation is weak,” he said. “The government is working on strengthening implementation so workers’ problems and poverty can be alleviated.”

The exhibition showcased photos of BLLF and brick-kiln workers movements’ struggle in Punjab. Through paintings and portraits, the exhibition tried to highlight the plight of the workers while paying tribute to the Supreme Court ruling, which they termed “a ray of hope”.

“The exhibition provides an opportunity to get the message across to political actors,” said FES Pakistan Resident Director Philipp Kauppert.

“In the end, it is a political struggle,” Kauppert said. “Through such events, FES is trying to raise awareness among the political elites and build some political pressure for achieving social justice.”

He said social and economic justice needs to be promoted in order to have real democracy.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 15th, 2013.

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