Breaking The Chains: How To Tackle Bonded Labour in Pakistan?

Get a glimpse of the hidden chains of modern slavery in Pakistan, as millions endure bonded labour. Explore the critical and courageous role of organizations like BLLF in providing support and legal counsel, and uncover the essential measures required to dismantle the oppressive structures, create alternative opportunities, and rebuild lives with dignity and empowerment.

Bonded labour is illegal in Pakistan, yet, 2.3 million people are working in conditions labelled by observers as modern slavery. How do workers find themselves trapped in bonded labour, what are its root causes and what is being done to fight bonded labour in Pakistan? FES Pakistan is cooperating with the Lahore-based Bonded Labour Liberation Front (BLLF) to support the eradication of bonded labour.

According to the Global Slavery Index,

Pakistan has 2.3 million people, or around one per cent of the population, working in conditions it labels modern slavery. The Lahore-based advocacy organization Bonded Labour Liberation Front (BLLF) assumes this number to be much higher.  The most common form of these working conditions is bonded labour. The Labour & Resource Department Punjab defines bonded labour as “a system of forced, or partly forced, labour under which a debtor enters, or is presumed to have entered into an agreement with the creditor”. This definition describes the environment under which individuals are forced into labour, but it takes more to understand the harsh reality and desperation these workers and their families are facing every day.

In its most typical manifestation,

a worker – usually an adult man – takes a loan or salary advance known as peshgi from an employer, labour contractor, or landlord. Then the debtor is obliged to work for that person for reduced wages until the debt is repaid. This typical model of debt bondage covers a wide range of situations, from relatively less severe and short-term to more severe and longer-term. Bonded labour often extends to family members. Women may be forced to work for little or no wages to repay the debts incurred by their spouses or male family members. The labour of children may be pledged to repay loans taken by parents. Inherited debt can result in bondage that is passed down from generation to generation. Since usually no written contract exists and most workers come from underprivileged social groups with no access to legal counsel, bonded labourers are vulnerable to all forms of exploitation. "Bonded labour is a system of dehumanization that deprives workers and their families of all their rights,” says Syeda Ghulam Fatima, secretary general of BLLF Pakistan. “It’s a vicious circle of poverty, ignorance, mental and physical servitude that [persists] from generation to generation."

This practice is illegal in Pakistan.

The country has ratified the conventions of the International Labour Organization on the Abolition of Forced Labour, the Worst Forms of Child Labour, and the Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining. In addition, the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan prohibits slavery and forced labour under Article 11(1). On September 18, 1988, the Supreme Court of Pakistan outlawed bonded labour and cancelled all existing bonded debts, and forbade lawsuits for the recovery of existing debts, which resulted in the Bonded Labour (Abolition) System Act 1992 adopted by the parliament. Provincial legislation followed suit. But despite the existence of these legislative tools and social rights, in many cases workers lack the capacity and resources to materialize their rights. In 2021 alone, more than 20,000 cases of bonded, forced and child labour were registered, with many more going unreported

The reasons for the persistence of bonded labour in Pakistan are manifold.

A major factor is Pakistan’s dire economic situation, which has been exacerbated by the impacts of climate change. The 2022 floods caused damage of approximately USD 30 billion to Pakistan’s economy and deprived millions of already vulnerable people of their livelihood. Thus, many of those struggling to make ends meet turn to the large unregulated economy, which provides informal employment opportunities. Within this unstable and unchecked environment, people can be left with no other choice than to enter dubious forms of employment that make them a victim of bonded labour. Bonded labour is most common in brick kilns, carpet-weaving workshops, mining, agriculture and domestic work.

While poverty certainly is one of the main causes of the persistence of bonded labour in Pakistan,

other factors are closely associated with it. Due to a fragile economy, financial institutions rarely extend formal credit facilities or loans without the security of collateral and proper documentation. Furthermore, the effectiveness of the judicial system in Pakistan to enforce credit contracts is lacking. Financial institutions, therefore, tend to refrain from making loans where the probability of recovering even the principal is low. Additionally, shortcomings in the enforcement of social welfare programmes and social safety laws for the vulnerable sections of society add to the high risk of bonded labour for underprivileged strata of society. Victims of bonded labour also face high barriers to accessing legal recourse, with regard to both the criminal justice system and the labour departments. And finally, the vulnerability of labourers increases when they do not form a united group. Already in the formal economy, Pakistan’s fragmented trade union movement already struggles to ensure bargaining models of industrial relations (where labour and management are two parties agreeing on a contractual framework). The even greater lack of collective bargaining in the informal economy denies labourers any possibility of presenting their views and needs, which subsequently enables a systematic violation of their rights through bonded labour.

To successfully abolish bonded labour, advocacy organizations like BLLF emphasize an approach that includes all primary stakeholders including employers,

employees, civil society organizations and government institutions. Since 1990, BLLF has been pioneering the struggle for abolishing bonded labour in Pakistan and is a long-standing partner of FES. The organization was founded by current secretary general Fatima. She started her involvement with bonded labour by visiting female workers in some of Pakistan’s more than 23,000 brick kilns. In the early days, BLLF provided basic sanitation facilities and education for a few workers. Despite repeated threats, harassment and even physical attacks, Fatima and BLLF continued and expanded their work. Today, BLLF is running a Freedom Campus, where workers can go for protection and legal counsel. By doing so, BLLF has supported tens of thousands of workers in their attempt to break free from bonded labour, and has gained international recognition for its work. According to Fatima, the most important factor that makes bonded labourers vulnerable is their social distance from the mainstream, which keeps their suffering far from the limelight.

In addition to BLLF’s efforts, a comprehensive set of measures is needed to tackle the root causes that force desperate people into bonded labour:

(1) One of the immediate steps is to connect bonded labourers to existing national and provincial social safety-net programmes and ensure the effective functioning of the District Vigilance Committees for the eradication of bonded labour. Due to a variety of reasons these committees struggle to effectively fulfil their tasks. (2) Alternative employment opportunities in the formal economy must be created for bonded labourers or those in danger of becoming a victim of bonded labour. The abolishment of bonded labour should be a specific part of any policies designed to curb the growing informal economy in Pakistan. (3) The availability of affordable credit needs to be improved, to reduce labourers’ reliance on advances from employers that lead them to bondage. (4) Awareness and mobilization of the general public is another important aspect. The general public must know that bonded labour is illegal and hence demand to effectively abolish the practices paving the way for bonded labour. (5) Trade unions should include the issue of bonded labourers in their existing attempts to organize informal workers and design a comprehensive strategy for organizing bonded labourers. (6) Continued capacity building of government functionaries is also critical to the efforts of the abolition of bonded labour. (7) And finally, the victims of bonded labour must be provided with opportunities to reintegrate into society. This can be achieved through economic inclusion, skill development, vocational training and educational outreach. BLLF’s Freedom Campus can provide a blueprint for similar policies.

Looking back on more than 30 years of experience, Fatima is hopeful that this goal can be achieved if bonded labourers are successfully linked "with social safety nets, social protection schemes and micro-credit facilities so that they do not need to rely on peshgi advances."

This article is co-authored by Niels Hegewisch, Country Director, and Abdullah Dayo, Program Advisor, FES Pakistan. Please visit https://pakistan.fes.de/about/team-contact for more details. 

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