The spiralling debt trapping Pakistan’s brick kiln workers
What starts off as a small loan ends up trapping generations into bonded labour.
Lahore, Pakistan – Yasmin works at one of the approximately 20,000 brick kilns in Pakistan.
Her story is not much different from the 4.5 million people who work on kilns across the country. She is facing debt that has spiralled out of control while working as a bonded labourer making bricks in harsh, hazardous conditions.
For almost all of these 4.5 million, there is no end in sight to their misery.
Yasmin started work at this kiln, situated just over 20km (12 miles) outside Pakistan’s eastern city of Lahore, a year ago. She is required to produce 1,000 bricks a day for which she receives 960 rupees (approximately $6).
“It wasn’t by choice. Husband’s illness, no money for medicine, deaths, children, desperation, household expenses and other problems forced me to take this route,” Yasmin, a mother of four, told Al Jazeera as she took a short break from the brick-making work she started at sunrise.
“I’ve been working like this for a decade now. If I get sick or pregnant and am unable to work, they add those days lost to the advance I’ve taken. If I borrow another 500 rupees ($3.1), they will write down 1,000 rupees ($6.2),” she added, wiping sweat off her forehead.
Mud caked her hands and feet. Her eyebrows were covered with sand.
To make bricks, soil is mixed with water and kneaded into a dough which is then placed into brick-shaped moulds. After being dried in the open, they are baked in kilns where temperatures reach 1100C (2012 F).
The kilns use coal as fuel, billowing black smoke that is inhaled by those who work and live on the kilns.
Yasmin continued talking while others around her worked, wary of the number of bricks they had to make before the end of the day.
It was hot and windy, with stronger wind forecast for later in the day. The workers wanted to reach their 1,000-brick mark as soon as possible. Falling short of the number would incur deductions from their already reduced daily wage.
The government has stipulated a daily wage of 960 rupees for labourers but most of these workers told Al Jazeera they only get half of that – if the target is reached.
Illness, bad weather and accidents often result in fewer bricks being made despite the involvement of the whole family – including underage children, which falls foul of the country’s laws.
“No one from the government comes here. The previous government was busy making roads. Why didn’t they make laws helping poor people? They didn’t make any houses for us to live in either,” said Asghar, breaking down as he predicted more gloom for his family and future generations.
The Global Slavery Index estimates there were almost 25 million people trapped in forced labour in 2016. Its 2018 report placed Pakistan eighth on the list, estimating the number to be at 3.1 million. A high number of religious minorities make up that figure.
Driven by poverty and need, these people take out loans or a cash advance – to pay hospital fees or get a sibling married, for example. In return, they are told to work on brick kilns until they can repay the amount borrowed.
The money they owe keeps increasing, spiralling out of reach, thus keeping them and future generations in debt. Reasons for this can include high interest on the amount borrowed, low wages further cut due to corrupt officials, increasing and unlawful deductions, and forged entries into the books that the workers do not get to see.
“The bricks that these workers make are used to make our houses, hospitals, schools, universities and the parliament. But they never get to benefit from what they are making,” Ghulam Fatima, founder of the Bonded Labor Liberation Front, told Al Jazeera.
“These people are shelterless and deprived of every facility that those institutes offer: They get no education, health facilities and the laws and judiciary systems are failing them.”
Fatima has had several attempts made on her life. She has been shot at, given electric shocks, arrested, beaten and put behind bars. But she says all those incidents gave her more courage to fight for these workers.
“It seems that these bricks get their red colour from the blood of the bonded labour.”
In Pakistan, it is illegal to employ someone who is under 16 years of age. But almost 70 percent of bonded labourers in Pakistan are children, who make up over one-third of the four million or so people working at brick kilns in Pakistan. Often, they work all day and are denied education.
There are cases where children inherit debts from parents and became bonded as individuals for a long time.
Eleven-year-old Qaiser Dad had to give up on school and work on the kiln after his father fell ill a year ago. He says he starts work at sunrise and does not stop until 8pm.
“I liked waking up early for school but not for this,” Dad told Al Jazeera, pointing to the wooden trolley he uses to collect the mixture for the bricks. “I don’t like what I have left behind [school]. I wanted to become a doctor. Now I just go home and sleep. I’m so tired I don’t even get time to play with my friends any more.”
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan reports a high mortality rate among children working at brick kilns. In addition, about one in 20 families living on brick kilns have children who have lost their eyesight.
Children are kept as hostages in the event of the parents leaving the kiln, even for a short period.
As debts are manipulated upwards year after year, an overall sense of helplessness overcomes most labourers, notes Siddharth Kara in his book, Bonded Labor.
“While some may have family members forcibly sold to repay their debts, others give up and commit suicide,” wrote Kara, before adding that there has been an alarming number of workers selling kidneys to repay part or all of their debts.
Deplorable living conditions
A majority of these brick kilns are located in rural areas, shielded from society’s eyes, far from the reach of laws and inspectors.
The workers live in deplorable conditions, the water they use to mix the soil gives them skin diseases and the hazardous fumes from the billowing black smoke during the brick-making process causes asthma and other diseases and increase the risk of contracting tuberculosis.
There are no proper toilet facilities, at the kilns or where the workers live. According to Fatima, the women have to go in the open, either late night or early morning.
“They are harassed, their photos are taken and these women are then exploited,” she said.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan noted that “influential politicians and their relatives owned most of these brick kilns”, added Kara in his book.
“It was common knowledge that the kiln owners, in collaboration with corrupt police officials, often got criminal cases registered against the labourers to keep them under their control,” an excerpt from Bonded Labour read.
A high-ranking police officer in Lahore told Al Jazeera that the workers do not sign a contract when they are taken to a brick kiln. Most of them cannot read, so they have no way of finding out what is being added to their accounts, he added.
Some of the workers who manage to flee or are freed are taken back to the kiln by the owners by force. With no inspection of these sites, they have no protection and often end up in harsher conditions upon their return, with a hefty fine added to their existing debt.
There have also been cases where an escaped worker’s daughter has been forcibly married off – or sold – as “payment” for the days he had been in hiding for.
With four kids and an ailing husband, Yasmin has no option but to continue working at the kiln.
“Sometimes we eat dry bread, sometimes we go to bed hungry. Because the next day, we have to come back to work. We have no other choice.”