Bonded labor is an extensive form of slavery.
It is a practice in which employers give high interest loans to workers in exchange for long term services and labor. Bonded labor IS deeply rooted in the exploitative feudal system, has been further exacerbated by the recent debilitating economic situation in Pakistan that has pushed countless people below the poverty line. From taking loans for marriages and medical assistance to simply surviving and feeding oneself, individuals not only pledge themselves but their entire families into bonded labor. Illiteracy has played its part in worsening the situation as poor people are tricked into taking loans which are impossible to pay off in the given time frame therefore are passed on down in the family. High interest rates, low wages and the employers’ negligent attitude toward laborers are just some of the reasons a loan is impossible to pay off. In majority of the cases, the employer tampers with the loan records and coerces the laborer to work indefinitely or face the consequences. The debt accumulated is passed down from generation to generation thereby creating an irreversible cycle of servitude.
Bonded child labor is also a result of the peshgi system where a family member takes advance payment from an employer and in return pledges the child to work until the loan is paid off.
Debt bondage, regardless of whether parents have contracted a debt that is to be paid off by their own labor or by pledging the services of their children, places children ultimately at the mercy of the landowner, contractor or money-lender, where they suffer from both economic hardship and educational deprivation. The main difference between adult and child bonded labor is that children have not themselves contracted the debt – it was done on their behalf by adults. The link between child labor and the inter-generational perpetuation of poverty could hardly be clearer.
Poverty and the existence of people prepared to exploit the desperation of others are at the heart of debt bondage. Without land or the benefits of education, the need for money for daily survival forces people to sell their labor in exchange for a lump sum or loan. Parents are driven to accept money in exchange for allowing their children to work outside their village, often in the hope that their child will be better off working for a more affluent family. Caste, discrimination along ethnic, religious and gender lines and continuing feudal agricultural relationships are also key to the existence of bonded labor and in allowing it to thrive.
Debt bondage is increasingly linked with trafficking of children for labor exploitation. Rural poverty, coupled with population growth and rapid urbanisation, leads some parents to place their children with agents, not only in exchange for money but also in the hope that the child will receive education or training at the point of destination. In other cases, children themselves make the decision to leave their home. The child victims, who may end up in commercial sexual exploitation, domestic work or sweatshops, may never know the amount of debt they are working to pay off or the terms of repayment.
In Pakistan, bonded labor has long been a feature in brick kilns, carpet industries, agriculture, fisheries, stone/brick crushing, shoe-making, power looms, and refuse sorting.
Detailed below is the situation of bonded laborers in some of the aforementioned industries in various provinces across Pakistan. Namely, Agriculture and Brick Kilns.
The agriculture sector of Pakistan accounts for almost 21% of the National Gross Domestic Product and employs over 41% of Pakistan’s labor force. Though it contributes to almost a quarter of the GDP, the agriculture sector has been highly unproductive given the scale of bonded labor employed especially in the provinces of Punjab and Sindh. One of the main reasons why bonded labor is mostly prevalent in these provinces is the feudalistic culture dating as far back as the Mughal era. A lack of political will, weak administration and corrupt officials from ‘zamindars’ to members of Parliament are responsible for exploiting and forcing the under privileged class into bonded labor.
In the rich estates east of Hyderabad in Sindh in southeast Pakistan, there are estimates that between 40,000 to 50,000 agricultural workers are in debt bondage. According to another research carried out by the Government of Sindh and the Asian Development Bank, there are some 1.7 million landless agriculture workers and share croppers in five districts of Sindh( Thatta, Dadu, Badin, Mirpurkhas and Umerkot). The magnitude of debt bondage in the agriculture sector is evident from the aforementioned figures.
The brick kiln industry is rampant with cases of bonded labor especially in the provinces of Punjab and Sindh. More than half a million men, women and children work in brick kilns around Pakistan. They are employed in various processes like brick making, kiln stacking and unloading and baking bricks. A majority of women and children work in the process of making unbaked bricks yet are not compensated for their labor; but acknowledged as labor when made to inherit debts. Wages are based on piece rates i.e. the amount of bricks made per day but the amount is so minimal that a laborer has barely enough to feed his family, let alone pay off a debt.
Brick Kiln Stats: FYI
Decent Work Agenda
The American Center for International Labor Solidarity (“the Solidarity Center”) in partnership with SPARC and the Center for Labor Advocacy & Dialogue (“CLAD”) has been working in the provinces of Sindh and the Punjab to promote the “decent work” agenda in brick kilns.
The concept of "decent work" as advanced by the International Labor Organization (“ILO”) in 1999 comprises four components:
- Social protection;
- Workers' rights; and
- Social dialogue.
Employment in this context covers work of all kinds and applies not just to workers in the formal economy but also to unregulated wage workers, the self-employed and home workers. It also refers to adequate opportunities for work, remuneration and safety at work and healthy working conditions.
Social protection entails adequate support in times of injury, sickness and old age.
The two other components emphasize the social relations of workers: the fundamental rights of workers, such as freedom of association, non-discrimination at work, and the absence of forced labor and child labor; and social dialogue, in which workers exercise their right to present their views, defend their interests and engage in discussions to negotiate work-related matters with employers and authorities.
Mainstreaming “decent work” and core labor standards into public procurement and robust enforcement of legal norms, especially those relating to minimum wage, bonded and child labor, and social security benefits, can bring about economic penalties and incentives that is likely to eradicate the option of making profits out of workers’ exploitation. The core labor standards or workers’ fundamental rights are articulated in ILO’s 1998 Declaration on Core Principles and Rights at Work; and include rights, such as freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining; elimination of all forms of forced and compulsory labor; effective abolition of child labor; and the elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation.
The Issue At Hand & What Can Be Done:
(In Context of Brick Kiln form of Bonded Labor)
Extreme poverty, lack of access to formal credit and alternative means of livelihood, make working in a kiln the only viable option for many. Advances are provided to male workers but their wives and children are included in the bargain. Additional money lent by the kiln owner for medicine, clothing, funerals and other ceremonies keeps on getting added to the principal debt.
With a certain percentage deducted off their piecemeal wage, it takes years for workers to pay off the debt. Sometimes, children inherit debts. Being illiterate as they mostly are, workers have little control over credit manipulation by accountants. Many activists believe that brick kiln workers could pay off their loans fairly easily if they were being paid a fair wage or at least the officially notified minimum wage. (As of March 2014, brick kiln workers in Multan district, to take just one example, were being paid Rupees 450 per 1000 bricks produced as against the minimum wage of Rupees 740 per 1000 bricks notified by the Government of the Punjab.)
Likewise, access to healthcare and old age benefits would minimize the need for workers to borrow incremental money from the owner. Minimum wages and social security benefits would also provide a greater inducement for workers to send children to school rather than having them work on the kiln.
The Employees’ Old Age Benefits Scheme applies to all the brick kilns; similarly, they are also covered by the Social Security Ordinance. Under the latter law, the workers are entitled to free medical services at the Provincial Employees Society Security Institutions’ (“ESSI”) Health Units and government hospitals; and sickness, injury and maternity benefits; death grants; survivor’s pension. Under the former Act, workers are entitled to a retirement pension received through the Employees Old-age Benefits Institution (“EOBI”). The employers are required to make a minimum contribution of Rs 450 to the EOBI and Rs 500 to the ESSI for each of the worker employed by him. In the case of EOBI, one percent of minimum wage is also to be contributed by the worker.
With a steady supply of indebted labor force and weak enforcement of labor laws, brick kiln owners make substantial profits, with virtually no risk. Most owners, on their own account, are able to recover their principal investment within a year or two of setting up the kiln. An average-sized brick kiln employing around 30-35 families is likely to make a monthly profit of around Rs 350,000, after meeting his operational costs.
Complying with the minimum wage provision and paying contribution toward social security and old age benefits as required under the law, would still leave an average brick kiln owner with a substantial monthly profit, not to mention several indirect dividends, such as a more motivated and healthier workforce. If the option to compete through low wages and poor working conditions gets closed off, brick kiln owners will need to compete in other, more constructive ways, like improved management and better work organization.
To alter the business regime in this sector, the public sector, which happens to be the main buyer of bricks, must always source bricks from units that comply with decent work requirements. This intervention can be complemented with greater awareness among private contractors, and builders, and non-governmental organisation (“NGOs”). ( Bricks can be traced back to the production site because of a baked-in label on all bricks)
Few brick kiln owners have ever faced prosecution for employing bonded labor.
The role of District Vigilance Committees (“DVCs”) in curbing bonded labor has been minimal, except where they have received sustained support from the NGOs. As a result, in order to achieve a long-term sustainable solution to the problem, factors that lead workers to enter into exploitative labor and credit arrangements must be looked into. Non-farm rural livelihoods, improved access to education, skill training, and access to formal sources of credit, must be introduced and supported. In immediate terms, considering the fact that brick kilns are there to stay, we need to do all we can to curb exploitative practices and help workers escape debt-bondage.
A sociologically grounded course of action requires an understanding of the political economy of brick kilns. The profit margins of owners could easily support minimum wages and provision of social security and old-age benefits. This in turn would help reduce the need for workers to secure new loans and enable them to pay off their debts. At present, brick kiln owners operate in a no-risk, high profitability environment. Exploiting workers and manipulating credit arrangements allows them to keep the cost of production low with no fear of being convicted for illegal practices.
Public procurement by the Government of Pakistan is governed by the Public Procurement Regulatory Authority Ordinance 2002 (“PPRA”) and the Public Procurement Rules 2004. All four provinces have passed similar provincial Public Procurement Acts and Rules. Apart from Balochistan, the provinces have also established regulatory authorities.
Essentially, the procurement laws are geared toward ensuring `efficiency’ and `transparency’ but fail to address human rights concerns. There is no prohibition, for instance, on sourcing material from establishments that violate workers’ rights. Much like the Federal Rules, the Provincial Rules do not establish any incentives for securing human rights and decent work agenda. Specifically, the Rules while talking about `direct sourcing’ or `pre-qualification of suppliers’, can provide for preferential treatment to be given to bidders who ensure decent work conditions. No provision is present in relation to labor and trade union representation on the boards of regulatory authorities.
Admittedly, to operationalize these legal changes, we will need a certification mechanism with regard to decent work criteria and standards. The DVCs, being a legally-protected and representative entity, can take up this role. Drawing on the decent work agenda and core labor standards, the following actions can be taken:
- All brick kilns are registered with the Provincial Governments.
- The freedom of joinng a trade or labor union is given to all brick kiln workers.
- All brick kiln workers are paid the prescribed minimum wage.
- Access for brick kiln workers to social safety nets, like the Social Security Scheme and the Employees Old Age Benefits Scheme is made mandatory.
- No bonded laborers or children are employed in hazardous tasks.
- All children in the age group five to 16 are enrolled in school as guaranteed under Article 25-A of the Constitution of Pakistan. (Article 25 A, inserted into the Constitution through 18th Amendment provides that “the State shall provide free and compulsory education to all children of the age of five to sixteen years in such manner as may be determined by law”.)
- Efforts must be made to bring about changes in provincial laws to tie public procurement with decent work agenda and core labor standards.
- Efforts must be made to enhance the capacity of DVCs in relation to decent work criteria and certification process.
- The District authorities can issue a notification requiring government contractors to procure bricks from brick kilns certified by the DVC. (There is nothing in the PPRA Act or Rules that would prevent public agencies to pre-qualify contractors to advance certain social objectives. In fact, a harmonious and holistic understanding of law would suggest that subsidiary legislation, such as procurement acts, ought to be in conformity with the Constitution, which clearly prohibits bonded and forced labor and exploitation of workers.)
- The provincial labor departments can enforce the labor law more rigidly and properly.
National Legal Framework
The Constitution of Pakistan
Article 14 makes the dignity of man inviolable, while Article 25 states that all citizens are equal before law and are entitled to equal protection of law.
Article 11(2) prohibits all forms of forced labor and traffic in human beings. Article 11(1) further states that slavery is non-existent and forbidden and no law should permit or facilitate its introduction in Pakistan in any form.
Article 9 states that no person could be deprived of liberty save in accordance with law.
Article 15 dealing with freedom of movement, gives every citizen the right to remain in, and, subject to any reasonable restriction imposed by law in the public interest, enter and move freely throughout Pakistan and to reside and settle anywhere.
Article 18 also gives every citizen the right to enter any lawful profession or occupation, and to conduct any lawful trade or business.
All the above Constitutional provisions, i.e. Articles 9, 15, and 18, imply that no one could be held against that person’s consent unless the detaining authority has the sanction of law behind him. Every citizen has been given the right to freely move throughout Pakistan, and to reside and settle in any part.
Regardless of the fact as to whether a laborer has borrowed from a landlord or a brick kiln owner, these provisions clearly indicate that the laborer cannot be denied his right of liberty to move freely. He or she and their respective family members could not be denied their right of freedom of movement. A civil action for recovery of the borrowed amount, and in some cases, even a criminal case, may be maintainable against the borrowers. However, the employers in no event are permitted under any law of Pakistan to detain the laborers. No person accordingly can take away the liberty of another person without a law authorizing him or her to do so. The person whose life or liberty is threatened is therefore legally entitled to require the person seeking to deprive him or her of the right to move freely to show the legal authority under which the perpetrator is purporting to act. No public functionary or private person may confine a person unless he has a legal warrant to do so. Consequently, the detention of a person who has been deprived by another of his or her liberty in flagrant violation of the law could be set aside by a court of law, and the person concerned could even file a suit for damages.
The Pakistan Penal Code 1860
Section 370 makes the import, export, removal, buying, selling or disposing of any person as a slave, or accepting, receiving or detaining any person against his will as a slave, punishable with imprisonment extending up to seven years, or fine, or both.
Section 371 supplements section 370 provisions by making the habitual import, export, removal, buying, selling, trafficking or dealing in slaves punishable with imprisonment for life or with imprisonment for a term not exceeding ten years, and fine.
Section 374 in this regard goes on to say that unlawfully compelling any person to labor against the will of that person is punishable with imprisonment up for a term extending up to five years, or with fine, or with both.
The Code of Criminal Procedure 1898
Section 100 empowers a First Class Magistrate or a Sub-Divisional Magistrate to issue a search warrant if he has reason to believe that any person is confined under conditions that may amount to an offense.
Section 491 gives any High Court the power to set at liberty any person illegally or improperly detained in public or private custody within the limits of its appellate criminal jurisdiction.
There is a special provision for the recovery of unlawfully detained girls under the age of 16 years. Section 552 of the Code of Criminal Procedure says that a District Magistrate may upon complaint made on oath make an order for the immediate release of such women or children who have been abducted or unlawfully detained.
Despite the above Constitutional and legal provisions, bonded labor was not acknowledged by the government until the bonded laborers of the brick kiln industry successfully brought a case against their owner. The 1989 Supreme Court decision on this case limited peshgiadvances to one week’s wages and granted bonded laborers the right to hold identity cards and vote. It also granted bonded laborers the right to work where they wanted and to make their own arrangements to repay their debts. Attempts by bonded laborers to exercise these new rights were met with strong resistance by employers and local authorities.
The Supreme Court judgment in the brick kiln case led to the adoption of the Bonded labor System (Abolition) Act 1992. This Act outlaws the practice of bonded labor, cancels all existing bonded debts, and forbids lawsuits for the recovery of bonded debts.
The Bonded Labor System (Abolition) Act 1992
The main features of the Bonded Labor System (Abolition) Act 1992 are as follows:
- Bonded labor is declared illegal. Every bonded laborer stands freed or discharged from any obligation to render bonded labor. Those detained in civil prison shall be released forthwith;
- Any custom or tradition or any contract by which any member of the family or dependent of such person, who is required to do any work or render any service as bonded laborer shall be void and inoperative.
- After the commencement of the Act, no person shall give any advance in pursuance of the bonded system;
- No person shall compel any person to render any bonded labor or other form of forced labor;
- The act also envisage the extinguishment of the liability of the bonded laborer to repay any bonded debt;
- The act is intended to free the mortgaged property of bonded labor;
- Freed bonded labor shall not be evicted from any homestead or other residential premises which he was occupying;
- Vigilance committee at the district and sub-divisional level will be set up to advise the implementing authorities on all matters relating to the enforcement of the legal provisions.
Any violation of its provision shall be cognizable and bail able offence, punishable with imprisonment which may extend to two years or fine up to Rs 50,000/ or both. By making the offences cognizable under the act, the state has undertaken the act, and unlike some of the previous legislations, does not leave it to initiative of the affected individuals.
International Conventions Concerning Bonded Labor
- ILO Convention no. 29 concerning Forced Labor(1930)
The term forced or compulsory labor shall mean all work or service, which is exacted, from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily.
- The UN Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade and Practices 1957
Under the convention debt bondage is defined as “the status or condition arising from a pledge by a debtor of his personal service or those of a person under his control as security for a debt, if the value of those services as reasonably assessed is not applied toward the liquidation of the debt or the length and nature of those services are not respectively limited and defined.
- The ILO Convention on the Worst Forms of Child Labor (No. 182)
This convention was adopted on 16 June 1999 and came into force on 19 November 2000. It commits each state which ratifies it to "take immediate and effective measures to secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labor as a matter of urgency". The term "child" applies to all persons under the age of 18 years and the worst forms of child labor include: all forms of slavery or practices similar to slavery, such as the sale and trafficking of children, debt bondage and serfdom and forced or compulsory labor, including forced or compulsory recruitment of children for use in armed conflict.
- The ILO Minimum Age Convention 138
This convention was adopted on 26 June 1973 and came into force on 19 June 1976. States ratifying the convention are bound to: pursue a national policy designed to ensure the effective abolition of child labor and to raise progressively the minimum age for admission to employment or work to a level consistent with the fullest physical and mental development of young persons.
- The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child
It states that children must be protected from all forms of exploitation. This includes performing any work “that is likely to be hazardous or to interfere with the child education, or to be harmful to the child’s health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development”.