Our apathy towards bonded labourers

Published: February 8, 2014
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It’s no news that the Pakistani government has been quite unable to enforce labour laws. Or end the vice of bonded labour for that matter. But the million-dollar question is: how can the government eliminate a practice which is so firmly rooted in culture, even if it wants to?

A recent Time Magazine story highlighted an interesting proposal made by an Australian billionaire to end this practice many of us may decry. The practice is bonded labour. Mining magnate Andrew Forrest’s offer is specific to the brick making industry, where around 1.8 million people work. Thousands of these brick makers were born to kiln workers, inherited their fathers’ jobs due to debt transference and will die as kiln workers, with their children inheriting their debts and their jobs.

Forrest offered to introduce biomass gasification — an Australian invention which, if implemented in Pakistan, would convert uneconomic lignite coal into diesel fuel and in the very process promise alternative jobs.

If Forrest’s plan is implemented, it could help address the fuel and electricity problems that the country is facing, while simultaneously creating thousands of new jobs. All that Pakistan needs to do is live up to a pledge to free bonded labourers and introduce stricter child labour and minimum wage laws. All of them will be easily assimilated in fresh jobs, where they will be paid as per their efforts. But why would this ever be implemented?

Pakistan spends billions on glossy projects while millions still live in abject poverty. We introduce controlled prices on agriculture products that have no positive impact on sharecroppers, but a significant one on mill owners.

In 1995, Iqbal Masih, a 12-year-old former bonded labour-turned-rights activist was shot dead, probably at the behest of his former master. Nobody went to jail. But then, despite laws against bonded labour being on the books for decades, no one has gone to jail for that either. We don’t really care, do we?

Published in The Express Tribune, February 8th, 2014.

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  • Feb 8, 2014 - 2:43PM

    This piece of news has rightly pointed out that boned labour has become culture, governments rather eliminating bonded labour have been giving space to grow and flourish. recently, the Institute for Social Justice (ISJ) has issued a press statement that says that 2013 was another tough year for bonded labourers mainly in agriculture and brick kiln sectors in Sindh and Punjab. However, few of them were released and rescued by the police on the directions of the courts.

    According to the data collected by the ISJ, in 2013, 1871 bonded including 425 women and 944 children were released on the directions of courts by the police. It includes 32 those children who were directly rescued by the police and FIRs (First Information Reports) were lodged by the police. They were found chained and detained by their masters for forced labour and begging. These figures do not include bonded labourers who escaped from the custody of landlords and also those who were released with the help of NGOs.

    In majority of the reported cases of release and rescued by the police, FIRs are not lodged against the landlords or masters, therefore, the business of debt bondage or contemporary form of slavery go unpunished, and keeps flourishing.

    Of the total, 1260 bonded labourers were released from Sindh, 577 from Punjab, 34 from Khyber Pkahunkhwa and none from Balochistan. There must be release and rescue of bonded labourers from Balochistan but are not reported due to less coverage of the media.

    The Global Slavery Index (GSI) 2013 by the Walk Free Foundation said that Pakistan is one of the most populous countries with contemporary form of slaves including bonded labourers but the findings of the report went uncheck and unnoticed by the authorities in Pakistan. The GSI provides a gloomy picture of Pakistan. Of the total 29.8 million modern slaves in the world, 2.2 million (7 percent) modern slaves are in Pakistan. These slaves are abused, exploited, raped, tortured and killed which go unnoticed generally. Of the ten most populous countries with modern slave, Pakistan is on number three after India and China with the prevalence of highest modern slaves. It is upsetting to note that countries like Sri Lanka and Afghanistan which have remained under a war for a long time but there is low prevalence of modern slaves.

    The ISJ also said that it is not merely poverty that is blamed but in real terms it is the will and commitment of federal and provincial governments that have yet not taken birth therefore slavery and debt bondage is common in the country.

    In 2012, during the Universal Periodic Review, Ireland had recommended Pakistan to develop a clear implementation and monitoring plan for the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1992, the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Rules, 1995 and the National Policy and Plan of Action for the Abolition of Bonded Labour, 2001. The ISJ said that Pakistan had accepted Irelands’ recommendation; now, not only the federal government but after the 18th Constitutional Amendment in 2010, the provincial governments should expeditiously enforce the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1992, prepare provincial policies and plans of action and allocate funds for the rehabilitation of released or escaped bonded labourers.

    The press statement further said that the most important and urgent action is required to lodge FIRs against culprits this will ensure for strong and effective deterrence from committing the crime of slavery. You can find more details at: http://www.isj.org.pk/in-2013-1871-bonded-labourers-including-425-women-and-944-children-were-released-and-rescued-in-pakistan/

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