Ranjhan has spent 40 years working in a Pakistani brick kiln as a bonded worker, tied to his employer by a debt that his pitiful salary will never enable him to repay. He is one of more than 2 million Pakistanis who campaigners say are trapped in “modern-day slavery,” condemned to a lifetime of hardship and toil.
There are laws in place against bonded labor, but the cycle continues, with thousands of children sucked in every year by their parents’ supposed debts, activists said.
At an open-air factory on the edge of Hyderabad, Pakistan, about 200km northeast of Karachi, tall, tapering chimneys belch out noxious smoke. Crouching children gather lumps of clay and pack them into rectangular molds. On the ground, long rows of unbaked bricks wait to go into the kiln.
These are the scenes that have been the backdrop to Ranjhan’s life since he was a child.
“I have spent the past 40-odd years in this grind, sometimes in one factory, sometimes in another,” he said.
He works every day of the week at the coal-fired kiln, where 1,000 bricks earn him about US$2, each cent of which goes straight back to his employer.
“I borrowed 40,000 to 50,000 rupees (US$650 to US$800) to buy food for my children. I will never pay it back before I die. My debt will die with me,” the father of three told reporters away from the eyes of his boss.
A global survey of slavery published last month by an Australian campaign group called the Walk Free Foundation said that Pakistan had the third-most slaves in the world, after India and China, with most working in brick-making or agriculture.
Walk Free says the Pakistani government must act to tackle the problem, including by regulating brick kilns and enforcing antislavery laws.
About the origin of his debt and that of his parents before him, Ranjhan said little. From buying food and wedding dowries to hospital visits — there is no shortage of reasons why these impoverished workers would go to their boss for a loan which they can never pay back.
Once the debt begins, the employer has no shortage of tactics to increase it — exorbitant charges for accommodation and food are typical — so the worker has no chance of ever paying it off.
“Everything we earn goes to our creditor, who gives us food to eat,” Ranjhan said.
Brick factories and farms across the nation run on these workers, who are fed for a pittance on bread, lentils, oil, sugar and onions.
Some small trade unions are trying improve the situation, lobbying bosses to raise salaries to the equivalent of US$5 a day and to not to trap their workers in the debt cycle.
“Before the union, the workers here did not even have names, just numbers. If someone came and asked them their name, they would say: ‘Ask the boss, he will tell you,’” said Puno Bheel, who set up a brick-workers’ union in Hyderabad a few years ago.
However, despite their best efforts, the unions are fighting a difficult battle. A few employers might have improved wages and conditions, but the unions have not persuaded any to free bonded workers.
However, some workers — like Sajan Kumar — have escaped.
Five years ago, the owner of a farm where he had worked for years with his family demanded US$4,500, claiming that their work had not covered the cost of feeding them.
Kumar’s uncle went to the Green Rural Development Organization, a campaign group, which took the matter to court.
The owner and his men threw Kumar and his family in vehicles and drove them into the desert “chained like animals,” Kumar said.
After days being held in the desert, the 87 members of Kumar’s extended family, all from the Hindu minority, were found by police.
“It was slavery; what else would you call it? We were treated like animals, we worked day and night,” Kumar said.
Once freed, the family pursued the matter further, accusing the landowner of illegal detention, an unusually audacious move in a nation where the rich and powerful rule virtually unchallenged in rural areas.
Kumar and his family got more than US$20,000 in an out-of-court settlement — a rare victory despite a law prohibiting bonded labor being on the Pakistani statute books since the early 1990s.
He now lives in the village of Azad Nagar, near Hyderabad, which is populated by former bonded workers.
The family bought a minibus and Kumar opened a grocery, but those leaving the practice face a difficult and uncertain future.
Rural Pakistan is usually dominated by powerful local landowners — they own the farms and factories that employ people and have enormous influence over local authorities and police.
Ghulam Haider, the head of the Green Rural Development Organization who set up Azad Nagar in 2006, said they had managed to free 28,000 people, but about half of them have ended up back in bonded labor amid the lack of any other work.
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