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Pakistan kiln workers live like 'slaves'

Laws against forced labour not enforced in sector sustained by modern slavery and exploitation of poorest.

Last updated: 17 Jul 2014 05:33
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An estimated two million children keep the factories running, working under squalid conditions [EPA]

Mirpur Khas, Pakistan - In Pakistan, brickmaking is one of the most important building materials industries employing about 10 million people directly and indirectly.

However, an estimated two million children also work for up to 14 hours a day, six days a week in brickmaking kilns, lacking basic rights and access to social security.

In a country now ranked as having the third highest prevalence of modern-day slavery according to the 2013 Global Slavery Index report, activists say they have been violently attacked for trying to secure better treatment for workers.

"Brick kiln owners subject us to physical torture and sexual harassment," Reshman, a 32-year-old kiln worker from Mirpur Khas city in Sindh province, told Al Jazeera.

"If any of our male family members manage to run away from the kiln, the owners direct their vengeance towards the women."

Reshman adds: "There is no law for our protection. Owners threaten us with severe consequences if we demand a raise in return for our labour."

Burnt hands

At just 12 years old, Jheeni dreams of becoming a teacher - but his dream are a far cry from his job, where he is forced to work long hours for paltry wages.

We can seek loans from the owners but we cannot pay back because of our meagre earnings and the high interest rates imposed on us.

- Reshman, bonded labourer

He works as a pathair - or unbaked brickmaker - and helps his father in the back-breaking task of carrying clay and bricks.

"I accompany my family to the workplace at six o'clock in the morning and we work all day, ending late when it is dark," he told Al Jazeera.

"During summer, it becomes hard to sustain the heat and work pressure. Often my hands are burnt while carrying baked bricks."

Jheeni's daily routine is common in Pakistan, where the International Labour Organisation estimates that over 12 million children work as child labourers.

Shaping mud into bricks is an arduous, repetitive process and pay can be as little as 75 rupees ($1.25) per day.

Zakaria Nutkani from the development charity, Action Aid, says the work leads to many injustices in a sector that makes extensive use of bonded labour.

"Brick kilns are dungeons for workers where heat strokes, hand burns, servitude, and discrimination prevail," Nutkani said.

"These workers are not allowed to register with social welfare and labour departments which entitle them to certain rights.

"Female workers have virtually no rights as most of them do not even possess a national identity card, which is a basic document to prove a person's existence in government records."

Cycle of debt

It is common to find parents and children working side by side at kilns.

According to the United Nations Development Programme, 21 percent of Pakistan's population of 180 million people live below the poverty line.

Reshman from Mirpur Khas is a bonded labourer - meaning that he is trapped into a perpetual cycle of debt that is often passed on to generations of the same family.

Many kiln managers provide loans to workers who are then unable to repay and have no choice but to work as slaves - a practice that is widespread despite being outlawed in 1992.

"We can seek loans from the owners but we cannot pay back because of our meagre earnings and the high interest rates imposed on us," Reshman said.

Easy targets

Most brick kiln workers live at the factories, in cramped conditions, sharing basic amenities such as water supplies.

Bonded slaves

Cases of sexual violence against women and children are common. Most of the children working at kilns have had no schooling and cannot read or write.

Without national identity cards, they are easy targets for trafficking, exploitation and abuse.

Nutkani from Action Aid said: "Women face serious hardships - work for them is utterly unpaid and it never ends, as they are supposed to perform all household chores."

"These female workers contract many ailments caused by the difficulty of the tasks they perform throughout their lives."

This year Pakistan shared the sixth ranking with another country of the 10 countries with the worst ranking for child labour globally by the Maplecroft risk analysis firm. Last year, the country failed to undertake a comprehensive survey to assess the level of child labour in its economy.

Sajjad Ahmad Cheemad of the Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child (SPARC) said that child workers were not registered for social security and there were often no safety measures to protect them.

"They are overburdened; their working hours are more than those of an adult. Sometimes, children work overnight, like slaves," Ahmad said.

"They do not get to see their family for long periods, for years, even."

A spokesperson for Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's office and the office of commerce ministry both declined to comment on the issue.

However, Osman Saifullah Khan, a senator from the opposition Pakistan People's Party - which tabled a bill on domestic workers rights earlier this year - hopes the passing of the bill will ensure that Pakistan reports to the International Labour Organisation, resulting in the protection of potentially millions of domestic workers.

In the absence of written contracts of employment, it is difficult to monitor whether or not the minimum wage is being paid.

- Osman Saifullah Khan, senator

"This is not a problem exclusive of the kiln industry," the senator told Al Jazeera.

"It is particularly prevalent in those industries that operate largely outside the documented economy. It is a highly fragmented localised industry with several thousands of units throughout the country making enforcement of rights very difficult."

Khan said that local authorities do not have sufficient manpower to ensure oversight, while employers do not typically maintain records.

"In the absence of written contracts of employment, it is difficult to monitor whether or not the minimum wage is being paid," he said.

Campaigners attacked

Although the government has fixed the wages of kiln workers at $7.50 per 1,000 bricks, the rule is not enforced.

Khalid Mahmoud, director of the Labour Education Foundation in Lahore, said: "Despite government recommendations, not more than a dozen of brick kiln owners in the whole of Punjab province have implemented the minimum wage for their workers.

Aslam Meraj was allegedly tortured while trying to advocate for the implementation of the minimum wages in the brick kiln industry [Paul Fallon/Al Jazeera]

"Cases that are taken against brick kiln owners are often met with resistance from the political elite in the district, and there is total apathy when it comes to the implementation of labour laws, particularly in the brick kiln industry."

In May, Aslam Meraj, who leads thousands of textile workers as general secretary of the Labour Qaumi Movement (LQM), was hospitalised after being attacked allegedly by some brick kiln owners in Faisalabad.

LQM members were returning from a kiln workers meeting when they were set upon by a group of men who beat Meraj and broke his jaw.

"Aslam and other activists are automatic targets for standing up for the rights of these workers," said Mahmoud.

"This is all being done with support from politicians and the police who are under huge influence of the brick kiln owners mafia," he said, adding that some leading politicians are themselves kiln owners.

He pointed out that 16 government departments are meant to implement laws aimed at protecting brick kiln workers - but there is no mechanism to ensure they work together.

"No provincial or federal government is willing to apply the labour laws on the brick kiln industry."

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Al Jazeera
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