Walking Out Of Slavery

Sarah Stuteville Jul 1, 2006

Walking OutFor Pakistan’s Bonded Laborers, Freedom Is The Beginning Of A New Struggle

Lahore, PAKISTAN—On the night of Oct. 1, 2005, in the tiny town of Jannat, one hour outside of Lahore, Shoukat Masih, 35, was fast asleep. He and his extended family had pulled their rusted charpoys out into the courtyard of their one-room home in order to enjoy the cool air and a night’s rest before returning at dawn to another 12 hours of hard labor in the neighboring brick kilns.

Around 11 p.m. a group of men armed with pistols and sticks entered the courtyard and yanked Masih to the ground, shouting, “Are you the one making statements on the television?” His wife was in a neighboring village visiting family, but his father, children, nieces and nephews all looked on in terror as he was beaten to death on the packed clay earth.

The Masih family has spent decades trying to speak out against bonded labor, a system that kept them haris, or debt slaves, in Punjab’s brick kilns for generations. The impoverished and uneducated family helped found a unique brick kiln workers’ union, through which they file complaints that are largely ignored by government officials. But when Masih was sold by one brick kiln owner to another for $3,300 without his knowledge or consent, his fury sent him to a local reporter.


Eight months after Masih’s death there have been no arrests, and his family holds out little hope that the case will ever be resolved – though not for lack of leads. Masih’s father Naid is convinced that the men that killed his son were thugs hired by what he calls “the S.P. group,” a secret organization protecting the interests of local brick kiln owners. Lawyers working with the family confirm the common belief that Masih died for speaking out against kiln owners.

Masih’s case is not unusual in the struggle against bonded labor in Pakistan. The system is rooted in feudal traditions and religious prejudice against Christian and Hindu minorities and reinforced by a rigid class hierarchy that resembles India’s caste system. Despite extensive laws banning bonded labor in Pakistan, the practice persists due to government corruption, a lethargic judicial system and societal apathy towards the issue.

Eleven years ago, violence against bonded labor activists made international news when 12-year-old freed laborer and activist Iqbal Masih (Masih, which means “Messiah,” is a common name among Christian bonded laborers), was gunned down, presumably by the “carpet mafia” that he had recently escaped.

Despite a flurry of attention at the time of his death, little has been done to eradicate bonded labor since. A campaign to clean up the carpet industry yielded some success, and a recent International Labor Organization effort has rid soccer ball manufacturing of child labor, but bonded laborers in Pakistan’s domestic industries, especially brick manufacturing in the north and agriculture in the south, continue to suffer.

“Most Pakistanis fund social service work through religious institutions, which by definition deal with Muslim populations and traditionally focus on the needs of widows, orphans or local schools,” says Zafar Yasin, a Supreme Court Advocate who works on bonded labor issues. “Because laws already exist on the books banning bonded labor, many, when they think of bonded labor at all, see it as a responsibility of the government.”


The Pakistani Bonded Labour System Abolition Act, which was officially adopted by parliament in 1992, outlaws bonded labor, cancels all existing bonded debts, forbids lawsuits for the recovery of debts and punishes using children as bonded labor with up to five years in prison and an $800 fine. Bonded laborers can petition for a writ of habeas corpus and free themselves legally. Despite these laws, the number of bonded laborers in Pakistan is estimated conservatively at several million, while human rights activists believe the total hovers closer to 8 million.

The nature of bonded labor in Pakistan explains why these laws are ineffective. Many laborers are confined to brick kilns in Punjab and agricultural fields in Sindh, where they work seven days a week from sunrise to sunset. They are often born into bondage and never receive any kind of education, leaving them incapable of performing the basic math to calculate the debt that enslaved them or the wages they earn. They are easily tricked – if not terrorized – into laboring long after their real debts are paid.

If they are not born into bondage, Pakistan’s poorest, most marginalized populations can find themselves there due to an expensive dowry, an illness or a drought in their native villages. Their financial difficulties drive them to factory bosses or landowners who offer them peshgi, or advance wages, and they and their entire families – including young children – are claimed as property.

Even if offered freedom, some workers have no other economic options. But many do escape and are often hunted down by owners and forced back into bondage. Human rights groups have reported that landlords, particularly in rural Sindh, maintain private jails where errant laborers are kept. Local police and politicians often turn a blind eye to such practices due to strong ties with landowners.

“There is a general lack of comprehension of the dignity of ordinary humans among the government and upper classes here in Pakistan,” says Dr. I.A. Rehman, executive director of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), when asked about the prevalence of bonded labor. “The mindset of the people in power toward ordinary human beings is very much like that of the factory owner toward his bonded laborers. In a country where no one even recognizes the right to work, it is hard to raise an awareness of these kinds of labor issues.”


A hot wind blasts across the yellow patch of parched land that is home to more than 1,000 families. Blue smoke rises from smoldering garbage piles that seem to have spontaneously combusted in the 105-degree-plus temperatures; plastic bags tangled in leafless shrubs wave like tattered flags; maniacal truck horns from a nearby road roll across the empty landscape. It may be desperately poor, but it was here, in this encampment outside of Secunderabad, in Sindh Province, that Haffeezan Nizamani found freedom.

“It was 3 a.m. when we snuck out,” says Nizamani, speaking of the night her family escaped from bondage. “We heard that someone in Hyderabad could help us and we were very hungry and scared.”

Nizamani had attempted escape three other times only to be caught, beaten and brought back to the sugarcane, rice and cotton fields that her family had worked under bondage for more generations than she can count. But on that night seven years ago, Nizamani, her husband and their six children made it to the local HRCP offices and were quickly ferried to this makeshift camp where they joined thousands of other recently freed haris.

That was about the extent of NGO support that Nizamani and her family received, however. This “free village” fends for itself, and most people live in basic mud huts without electricity, sanitation or regular access to clean water. Unemployment is over 50 percent, almost none of the 5,000 children attend school, babies are regularly stricken with fever, diarrhea and malaria, and there is no access to health services.

Despite these hardships, the free village offers protection against angry landlords who come looking for runaway laborers. Nizamani says this happens regularly enough that residents are afraid to leave its borders. But when the gunwielding owners approach, the Muslim, Hindu and Christian villagers pull out axes, stones and any other weapons they can find and refuse to give their neighbors up. “Last month armed persons from the brick kilns came,” but, she states proudly, “we fought back.”

Life for Nizamani and her family is unimaginably hard. Her husband and 13-year-old daughter bring in the only income, 100 rupees ($1.35) a day from the nearby cotton factory. She tries to send her three sons to the nearest government school and wants them to live “respected lives,” but the cost of books and uniforms is prohibitive, and it is unlikely that they will receive a regular education. Nizamani dreams of a cement house, a private place to go to the bathroom and a regular water source, but she has little faith that anyone, whether the government or NGOs, will help her.

Still, her relief at being freed from bondage is palpable. The pink plastic bracelets that line her arms and announce her Gujarati heritage clack together with her gestures as she describes her previous life. She tells of no accounting of labor performed or salaries owed, only a crowded floor to sleep on and insufficient food. She saw her children wake at dawn every day to work someone else’s fields, and at nighttime the landlords’ Kalishnikov rifles loomed large in her nightmares.

Though she says she feels desperate in her current situation, Nizamani looks confused and then laughs when asked if life in the free village is better. “We were facing starvation before, we were very afraid. Yes this is better. We are safe here and it is better.”


Almost 30 miles away from Nizamani and her neighbors, Himatabad, or “Courage Village,” offers a rare glimmer of hope in the world of bonded laborers. It has one newly constructed street carved out of 25,000 square yards of land set aside to build a functional village for freed laborers. The first row of 10 freshly painted pink houses glows softly in the fading summer evening, a pile of new porcelain squat toilets awaits installation and four partially constructed brick walls broadcast plans for a community clinic. A sign on the door of one home proclaims, “A child employed is a future destroyed.”

Courage Village is the vision of two men, peace activist Aslam Khwaja and businessman Kaleem Sheikh. While Khwaja provided the inspiration, Sheikh has used his family’s wealth from a successful cloth trading empire to aid some of Pakistan’s forgotten haris.

Pakistan’s NGO sector offers little on-theground relief. Most large NGOs, like the HRCP see their role as advocating law enforcement. Others, such as the Bonded Labor Liberation Front, regularly free laborers through legal means, but their lack of funds means that they can offer very little support for freed laborers, many of whom are forced to return to the very system they tried to escape.

“The root of the problem is religious discrimination and government inaction,” says Sheikh, who is Muslim, but whose family comes from Hindu roots. “We (Muslims and the wealthy) have a duty to show these people that we care about what is happening to them.”

While the international NGO ActionAid bought the land for Courage Village, the funds for the homes themselves have come straight from the pockets of Sheikh and others in Pakistan’s wealthy elite.

Ground was broken at Courage Village seven months ago and Sheikh found willing freed haris in nearby encampments to build the houses they would later inhabit. He hopes to see it grow into a town of 207 homes, though he is still raising funds to continue construction. Sheikh believes that his program will be successful where others have failed because he and a few other friends are personally committed to the project.

“Nobody trusts the government or NGOs in Pakistan,” says Sheikh. “They make promises, come visit and do nothing. The money they raise is never seen by these people. Occasionally they free some laborers and then send them to the streets.”

Sheikh believes that only a raised consciousness among the wealthy in Pakistani society can yield results. He is currently trying to find relatively well-paid employment for the inhabitants of Courage Village in fellow industrialists’ factories.

“These people must get away from the fields and the system that has enslaved them. They have a slave mentality now and won’t be free until they have independent work in another sector.”

Sheikh, who recently accompanied Courage Villagers on a peace march across the border to India to lobby for laborers’ rights and religious tolerance, also encourages activism among the free laborers that he aids.

“The American people must put pressure on the landlords through President [Pervez] Musharraf to put an end to this practice,” says Lali Kolhi, a Courage Village resident and bonded labor activist who recently accompanied Sheikh on the peace march. “Many people are living in bondage and suffering. Only with international unity will we lift this curse.”


Eight hundred miles away from Courage Village, in Jannat – “Paradise” in Urdu – the bereaved Masih family is feeling the full weight of this curse. The sun beats down on Masih’s widow and her sweat mingles with tears as she kneels at her husband’s fresh grave, decorated with the very bricks that he toiled baking in local kilns.

Masih’s death has renewed some interest in the injustices of bonded labor. Many hope that a Supreme Court inquiry into the effectiveness of Pakistani labor laws, due out this month, will embarrass the Musharraf government into action. But a lifetime of empty promises and the loss of a beloved son has left the Masih family wary and exhausted.

Masih’s father, Naid, holds a worn folder overflowing with documentation of abuses and important business cards in his toughened hands as proof of how hard they’ve tried. He lists his union’s demands: registration of workers and brick kilns, officially notified payments, hourly based work. But then he reaches for a black-and-white photo of Shoukat, posed young and serious in an argyle vest. Naid’s lined face pulls tight against high cheekbones and collapses into grief.

Shoukat’s fatherless children sit with their heads lowered. Naid’s hands rise to cover his tear-streaked face, and the business cards slip to his lap. “The problem lingers on, it will never be solved. They take the money and run away. They come and nothing ever changes.”

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2 Responses

  1. a wolf says:

    This is a heart-breaking story, thank you for writing it, Sarah.
    Do you really think that American pressure would work if applied?

  2. Heart-breaking is certainly the word for it. It was the hardest story I ever reported, largely because I knew how unlikely it was that exposing the issue would lead to helping debt-slaves. The people I spoke to were so excited that a journalist had come to talk with them and of course were convinced that I had more sway to help them than I do. Do I think that American pressure could work if applied? Yes, absolutely, I think the Pakistani government would be more than happy to pay serious attention to the issue if their U.S. Aid (and War on Terror Money) was threatened. I think a strong campaingn to embarass both governments (U.S. and Pakistani) could work wonders, the problem is that in the cacophany of anti-terror rhetoric and hysteria, a purely humanitarian crisis in the Muslim world, like this one, just isn’t a priority.

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