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Bonded Labour in Pakistan

By United Nations Economic and Social Council

It is ten years since Pakistan's Supreme Court declared bonded labour to be unconstitutional and took the first steps to abolish it. It is almost seven years since the National Assembly passed a law formally abolishing bonded labour and prohibiting the practice, and four years since the publication of the official "Rules" outlining how the law was to be implemented. Bonded labour, or "debt bondage" as it is labelled at international level, is a practice condemned by the United Nations as "similar to slavery" and consequently a violation of Article 4 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is considered by the International Labour Organization (ILO) to constitute forced labour and to be a violation of the ILO's Convention No. 29 on Forced Labour.

In the days and months after the Supreme Court's judgment of 1989, tens of thousands of bonded labourers in Pakistan's brick kilns left the jobs which they had been doing as a result of the pressure of debt bondage. Progress was swift and it seemed that the millions of people reported to be held in debt bondage in the country would soon be free.

However, in 1999 we are obliged to conclude that, despite temporary progress following the Supreme Court's judgment, debt bondage remains both widespread and virtually unchallenged by the Government of Pakistan. Indeed, it is both remarkable and tragic how little government officials have been willing to do to enforce the country's laws and to bring an end to debt bondage, and how willingly they appear to tolerate its persistence.

In many cases it is entire families which are bonded in Pakistan. Of course, there are specific cases of children being pledged or bonded in return for loans to their parent(s) or guardian, notably in the carpet industry and in agriculture. The way the children are absorbed and obliged to work varies, but as a matter of routine the children of bonded families do not attend school, but start helping their parents work as soon as they reach school age, if not before. There have been various attempts to estimate the number of child labourers in Pakistan, notably involving the ILO, but no statistics have been published as a result concerning either the number of children, or the total number of people in Pakistan, who are victims of debt bondage .

Brick kilns in Punjab

In the brick kilns of Punjab, in which bonded labourers were the particular focus of the Supreme Court's 1989 judgment, workers continue to be bonded by debt as a matter of routine, even though conditions of work have in many cases improved and there are fewer reports of the physical abuse of bonded labourers than in the past. Over the past year there have been a series of court cases in which the courts have ordered the release of bonded brick kiln workers. Almost without exception, however, these cases have been brought to court after local government officials refused to take action or failed to do so when cases were brought to their attention. In late 1998, for example, a court ordered the release of 14 bonded labourers held at a brick kiln in Rawalpindi District (owned by Altaf - HR Petition No. 110/4/1998). The 14 consisted of seven adults (four men and three women) and seven children -- all considered by the court to be in bondage. The owner of the kiln claimed that they owed him 73,000 Rupees (about US$1,400). The local police refused to carry out the "recovery notice" which the court issued, calling for the release of 14 detainees. The court eventually dispatched its bailiff to carry out the releases, and these occurred at night.

As in 1989, therefore, the courts remain an ultimate recourse for bonded labourers. However, the executive branch of government appears, in contrast, generally inactive and unwilling to take any action to implement the 1992 law (the Bonded Labour System [Abolition] Act) which was introduced precisely so that bonded workers and their advocates would not have to refer every case to the courts. Fortunately there are exceptions. For example, after the District Commissioner for Taxila (near Rawalpindi) was petitioned last December to release 21 bonded labourers at the "Three Star" brick kiln in Taxila, he took action and ended up releasing 45 people from debt bondage. They included nine children who were under ten years of age: some mere infants. This entire group was reported to be bonded for loans totalling 33,000 Rupees (US$600).

Agriculture in Sindh

In the agricultural sector, in contrast, bonded labour remains under reported and largely unreformed and the subject of virtually no releases ordered by the courts. In the rich irrigated estates east of Hyderabad in Sindh in southeast Pakistan, there are estimates that between 40,000 and 50,000 agricultural workers are in debt bondage. Virtually all of these bonded labourers working on farms in Sanghar, Mirpurkas and Umerkot Districts are from the indigenous Pakri community, which has its origins in the desert areas of southeast Sindh. Many Pakri have migrated to the richer agricultural zones of Sindh or to large towns in search of work and income. Almost without exception those in debt bondage are Hindus, working for landlords who are Muslim. Their bondage usually has its origins in a share-cropping arrangement, but degenerates to debt bondage as the Pakri have to resort to loans to pay for seeds, fertiliser and other requirements before their first harvest.

From Release to Recapture

The main human rights group working for the release of the Pakri bonded labourers is the Special Task Force for Sindh of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), one of the country's most prominent non-governmental organisations. The Task Force has secured the release of between 7,000 and 8,000 bonded labourers in Sindh over the past five years, by persuading police or local government officials to inspect places where bonded labourers are reported to be held, and ordering them to be released when they are found. However, it is very much an uphill struggle, and over the past nine months the principle challenge for the Task Force has been to ensure that freed bonded labourers remain free, for there have been numerous abductions or cases of virtual "slave catching", with landlords and their agents kidnapping their former bonded labourers (sometimes one by one, sometime in small groups, and on two occasions in large-scale operations).

In September 1998 a camp at Matli housing hundreds of freed bonded labourers, was the target of a night-time raid by one wealthy landlord, with 87 people abducted at once. Protests both within Pakistan and internationally ensured that on this occasion the authorities responded promptly, and within a few days the victims were recovered by the police. However, despite serious assaults committed during the raid and the seriousness of the abductions themselves, no-one has been charged or brought to court on account of this raid. It seems that the authorities thought it reasonable to negotiate with the kidnappers and informally to promise them impunity if they would free the victims promptly.

In 1999 abductions of freed bonded labourers living in Matli have been reported virtually every week. However, when abductions occur in ones or twos, protests are few and the authorities do nothing.

A 12-year-old boy, Mangol, from a formerly bonded family, was abducted early last year while visiting the nearby town of Digri. The abduction occurred two years after Mangol and the rest of his family escaped from the farm where they all worked as bonded labourers. The landlord claimed the family owed him 32,000 Rupees (US$600). In early 1999 Mangol was seen working on the farm in Umerkot District where he and his whole family had previously been in bondage, and he was reportedly being kept tied up at night.

Five members of another former bonded family which arrived at Matli at the beginning of 1999 were abducted in March 1999, while working on a nearby farm. An eye-witness reported that the assailants worked for the family's former landlord. In yet another case, a young bonded labourer called Arjan is reported to have been disappeared early in 1999, and is believed to have been murdered, after protesting when his wife was raped by their landlord and other men.

These are only a few examples, but they indicate clearly that the violations of human rights associated with bonded labour are not limited to the nature of the contract, nor do they only concern adult "workers" in any traditional sense. The victims of abuse are for the large part women and children, and alongside debt bondage in the narrow sense there is a gross pattern of violations of human rights, including rape of women bonded workers, abductions, cases of captivity or unlawful detention, economic exploitation of children and depriving them of their right to education.

Thwarting the Rule of Law

In addition to the pattern of abductions and of abuse of bonded labourers by landlords or their agents, efforts to secure releases in Sindh are greatly hampered by a lack of cooperation by District Commissioners and other government officials. These are the officials who effectively determine what aspects of government policy and of the law as a whole are actually put into practice at local level. Senior police officers regularly refuse to register complaints when labourers report offences varying from debt bondage to physical assault and abduction. For most practical purposes the rule of law is not available to bonded labourers.

The violations of human rights described here are by no means the only serious abuses which occur in Pakistan today. However, the complacency of the Government of Pakistan in the face of these massive abuses, and, indeed, other governments which appear well placed to persuade the Pakistan authorities to take action, is startling. Having admitted to the existence of bonded labour at the beginning of this decade, the Government systematically nowadays belittles the problem. When the issue is discussed, it is attributed to poverty and the remedy, it is suggested, is the injection of more international aid. This is nonsense. The social structure underpinning the debt bondage system and the unwillingness of rich landowners to share their land or resources with others, or even to pay their workers a wage which enables them to survive, are the main obstacles to change. Property rights in effect take precedence over human rights. Unless the international community is willing to insist on change, it seems certain that the interests of landowners and other employers of bonded labour will prevail over those of landless victims of bondage, and this form of slavery will continue to flourish in the 21st century.

The Working Group on Contemporary Forms of Slavery has heard statements about bonded labour in Pakistan on numerous occasions. Distinguished representatives from Pakistan¹s Permanent Mission have also appeared here to provide the Working Group with information from the Government. There has been some dialogue, but none, it seems, that has been reflected in more substantial action to free bonded labourers by the Government. We recommend that the Working Group take advantage of next year's session to invite the Government to submit detailed information to the Working Group and to send a representative who has significant experience of this problem in order to discuss what remedial action can be taken immediately to uphold the basic rights of bonded labourers and to ensure their effective rehabilitation.


Date Added: 02/06/06

Date/Time Last Modified: 2/7/2006 10:55:59 AM

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