Modern ‘slaves’: Pakistan’s bonded labourers fight back
At Punjab’s brick-making kilns, workers are savagely exploited and horror stories abound
Sangita Muqsood in her room in the brick kiln where she works, near Lahore. Photograph: Lorraine Mallinder
So, who is Sangita Muqsood voting for?
“Whoever you’re voting for,” says the 30-year-old brick maker, tongue in cheek. A lifetime making bricks from the rich red soil of the province of Punjab, crouching hours at a time in searing summer heat and bitter winter cold, back aching as she repeatedly packs and empties the metal moulds, have taught her to expect nothing of politicians.
But when Pakistan holds elections on Wednesday, Muqsood will not be passing up the opportunity to stick her ballot paper in the urn. For this is the first time the mother of four will be voting. Behind the scepticism is a hint of quiet optimism.
Muqsood is a modern-day “slave”. She works at one of dozens of kilns on the outskirts of Lahore, their tapering chimneys belching black smoke into the skies. Until recently she and her family slaved brick by brick to pay off never-ending interest on ever-increasing loans to the kiln owner, their weekly pay docked by as much as half. Until recently, she didn’t have an an ID card.
Until recently, it was as if she didn’t exist.
But, over the past two years, the darkness has begun to lift. With the help of Syeda Ghulam Fatima, a human rights activist who heads the Bonded Labour Liberation Front, Muqsood and her fellow workers have been learning arithmetic, reading and writing, and developing alternative skills such as embroidery and the art of collective bargaining. And they finally managed to get those all-important ID cards, which will enable them to vote.
Make no mistake, conditions at the kiln are still illegal. Muqsood and her family are still not getting all of the 1,100 rupees (about €7.30) they are supposed to be earning for the 1,000 bricks they make each day. Unable to work during the country’s two rainy seasons – July to September, and December to February – they remain at the kiln. Muqsood’s husband works in the nearby fields to make up for lost earnings. With nowhere else to live, they are effectively still in bondage.
Bonded labour has been illegal in the country since 1992, but abuses are reportedly rife in Punjab. According to the region’s ministry of labour and employment, 9,288 brick kilns are located in the province, more than half the country’s total.
Official statistics on numbers employed in the province are a fraction of the Bonded Labour Liberation Front’s estimate of 2½ million workers. Last year the ministry launched a major drive to eliminate child labour from the sector, carrying out more than 14,000 inspections and arresting 897 brick kiln owners – although, according to the front, most got off with a small fine. An official said there was no government data on penalties.
The still-nascent emancipation of the workers at the kiln where Muqsood works started two years ago, when her friend Maqsudan Boota (36) went to Lahore to seek Fatima’s help. With no toilet facilities, workers trek to the nearby fields. But women had stopped going during the day after a site manager took to to snapping them with his cellphone, threatening to share the pictures, they said, if they didn’t perform sexual favours. So they would go under cover of darkness – until, that is, the manager started lying in wait with his friends.
It’s all part of the ritual abuse at the brick kilns. Horror stories abound, of mind games, beatings, miscarriages, gang rapes, of owners forcing families to hand over their daughters, whether to pay off loans or to appease local police. And, in 2014, there was the horrific tale of a heavily pregnant woman and her husband, parents of three children, at a brick kiln in the village of Kot Radha Kishan, who were pushed into the flames and burned alive.
Muqsood breaks down as she tells her story. She tells of how, aged 16, she and her husband ended up at the brick kiln after a landowner threw them out of their home. “So we came here and started making bricks. All of our life is making bricks,” she says.
Repeated loans taken out to pay midwives – in each case, she was back at the kiln the day after giving birth, nursing her babies as she worked – enslaved the family to a life of crouching on the red soil, bowing to cruel masters.
This is how it works, says Fatima, in her high-security Lahore office. “The beautiful red colour of these bricks is from the blood of these workers. Yet they have none of the benefit of the buildings made with these bricks. The schools and hospitals and the homes.”
Apart from the physical and emotional abuse, occupational hazards include asthma from exposure to the toxic smoke, reproductive problems caused by endless crouching, hepatitis from the dirty well water and a range of other ills.
Fatima rubs her right leg. A chunk of the lower thigh is missing. In 1996 she and her brother ventured to a local kiln to inform workers of their rights. They were chased by men with guns and both were shot in the legs. These days she receives regular death threats and constantly moves between safe houses. The attacks intensified after her work attracted the attention of photoblog the Humans of New York, which brought crowdfunding donations from around the world.
She has learned to live with the fear, but worries about going too soon. “I just hope I have another two or three years, so I can pass on the skills the workers need,” she says.
At the kiln where she works, Muqsood and her colleagues are acquiring those skills. They want a proper toilet, clean water, social security and equal rights on pay. Entire families work to hit production targets, but only the men get the money. “Women are not considered as independent workers,” says Boota.
This week Muqsood will vote in the hope of obtaining those rights. In a land where the informal nature of the economy breeds corruption at all levels of society, these workers on the bottom rungs have survived with integrity intact. When a political party stopped by with an offer of 2,500 rupees (€17) in bribe money for each worker, the entire community sent them packing.
“We all said no. We told them to leave,” says Muqsood. “We won’t be bought.”