Slavery in modern times: The Pakistani brick-kiln workers

An edited version of this article was first published in The Express Tribune on Sep 15, 2013.

Islamabad – When Muhammad Akram, a brick-kiln worker from Mandi Bahauddin, demanded fair wages from the brick-kiln’s owners in August, he claims the owners got him kidnapped, tortured him and tried to implicate him in a fake criminal case.

Akram, 35, said the owners have given him death threats after he tried to contact police and instead of paying him for his work, they are asking him to pay them a penalty of Rs50,000 otherwise they will get him arrested.

Akram’s story is unfortunately 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 jointly organised by Bonded Labour Liberation Front (BLLF) and the 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 the influential brick-kiln owners.

“The Government of Punjab 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 at least two workers at least a full day’s work, the brick-kiln 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.

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

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

The misery of the brick-kiln workers persists despite a recent suo moto intervention by 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 in which brick-kiln owners force their workers in to debts they can never pay off, forcing 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, that too only because the Supreme Court has put pressure.

“We think there are three things that can improve the situation of the workers,” he said. “The brick-kiln workers should at least get minimum wage, the social protection institutions must support the workers and the workers need to have true representation.”

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

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

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

The exhibition showcased photos from the struggle of BLLF and the brick-kiln workers’ movements 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 workers said was a ray of hope.

The exhibition provides a chance for raising awareness among the workers about their rights but it also provides an opportunity to get the message across to the political actors, said Philipp Kauppert, Resident Director of FES Pakistan.

“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 a real democracy.

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