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OPINION: Pakistan’s future generations need protecting from bonded labour

by Syeda Ghulam Fatima | Aurora Forum
Tuesday, 6 August 2019 12:30 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: A family makes bricks at a brick factory in Islamabad, Pakistan March 9, 2017. REUTERS/Caren Firouz

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Greater efforts need to be made to rehabilitate the victims of bonded labour into society in ways that allow them to recover from the cycle of abuse that they have endured

Syeda Ghulam Fatima is a Pakistani labour rights activist and General Secretary of the Bonded Labour Liberation front Pakistan, and a Goodwill Ambassador for the Aurora Forum.

I have witnessed the atrocities of slavery since I was a child. Surrounded by people whose lives were stripped away brick by brick, I have seen first-hand the devastating grip that the brick-kiln industry in Pakistan has on millions of people.

Forced to work at gunpoint from dawn to dusk, young children, elders, men and women are all tortured at the hands of wealthy kiln owners who rape them, humiliate them, and leave them to suffer in poverty without food, clothing and shelter.

Though bonded labour has been illegal in Pakistan since 1992, over 25,000 brick kilns operate across the country, trapping at least 4.5 million[1] workers in a vicious cycle. Especially in rural areas, illiterate and desperate people are tricked into accepting small loans in exchange for working in the kilns.

But as their debt grows, with no means of repayment, these labourers become condemned to a lifetime of work in the kilns, with their debt passing onto their children when they die. These children are denied basic human rights and forced to work in slurry pits, mould bricks by hand and stoke furnaces.

Liberating people from this cycle is essential if we are to protect future Pakistani generations from suffering the same fate. But for this liberation to be beneficial to the survivors of bonded labour, we must realise that liberation is just the first step.

The true fight is ensuring that they are empowered to thrive in society once they are freed. The experience of long-term abuse is a lasting wound that cannot be healed immediately at the point of rescue. Many children are unable to eat, or even cry, for several weeks after being brought to safety, let alone feel empowered enough to pursue new skills or regain trust in their communities.

Greater efforts need to be made to rehabilitate the victims of bonded labour into society in ways that allow them to recover from the cycle of abuse that they have endured, while preventing them from returning to the kilns.

There is a need for a comprehensive provision of mental health care, education, protection and legal counsel to the survivors. Educating freed workers about their rights and the skills needed to self-sustain their own lives is essential if they are to find alternative, safe employment.

This involves training brick kiln workers in alternative skills such as driving a taxi or rikshaw, making handycrafts, sewing, hair cutting, beauty work, gardening, commercial cooking and mobile phone and home appliance repairs so that after freedom they can pursue work outside the kilns.

We also need investment in building schools for kilnworkers (adults and children) so they can learn arithmetic, reading and writing which would both help them calculate their wages and find alternative employment. We need to establish community centres and work with respected community leaders on reintegration schemes so that communities welcome survivors of debt bondage. And we need to work with local authorities to improve access to ID cards for survivors so they can vote and benefit from public services.

Longer-term rehabilitation and education are crucial for equipping the next generation with the necessary awareness, skills and protection to overcome the system that has tried to keep them in shackles.

But issues such as this from across the world cannot be fought in isolation.

As such, it is crucial that global platforms exist for people to come together to shine a light on issues such as this and discuss how we can protect at-risk communities across the world in the long term. Therefore, I am proud to be a Goodwill Ambassador of the Aurora Forum, alongside a network of distinguished humanitarians, educators and business leaders. The inaugural event in October 14-21, 2019 will bring together people from all over the world who share the belief that we all have a personal stake in the progress and defence of humanity.

During the Forum, the fourth Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity will be presented, a $1 million prize awarded annually to an exceptional humanitarian who risks their lives to defend others.

I have been shot at, beaten and even electrocuted for my activism, and am proud of the work we have done in the fight against bonded labour in my country. But the journey to protecting Pakistan’s future children from experiencing what I and millions and others have lived through, will require more sacrifices and a greater international understanding of the need for rehabilitation methods.

[1] Brick production involves family labor in Pakistan.An average of 25 to 30 families work at one brick kiln. Average family size among brick kiln labor force is 5 to 7 members.