The national economy of Pakistan is on the verge of default. The government is striving to address the economic challenges and save the country from default. However, in these extensive efforts for the restoration of the economy, an essential component of labour and employment has been widely ignored for the vested interest of businessmen, landlords, and elites. There is a need to understand how the economy of a developing country can be sustained with a poor, unsatisfied and unhealthy labour class because the matter has never been discussed on the floor of assemblies or in prime-time media debates. Therefore, the working class calls upon governments to fulfil their basic needs of food, health, education and social protection.
The burden of inflation and price hikes is borne by workers or, sometimes, the government which provides subsidies on food and fuel items. But employers are not asked to share this burden by adding inflation rates in salaries. Article 38 of the constitution of Pakistan clearly states that the state shall ensure equal adjustment of resources between employees and employers. Thus, on one hand, the government alone has to face an economic crisis instead of sharing this burden with employers. On the other hand, millions of workers, particularly the victims of forced labour, remain out of the mainstream and unable to contribute to the national economy.
It is unfortunate that instead of regulating and controlling the labour market, the state has left the workers at the mercy of their employers. The absence of good governance and an efficient justice system makes the situation worse.
The brick kiln industry is a prime example of forced labour in Pakistan. This industry does business worth more than Rs3000 million per month but doesn’t pay GST, social security contribution, EOBI and income tax. Thus, this industry is totally out of the ambit of the state economy. The same is the case with many other formal and informal sectors. Labourers working in these sectors are dependent on the state for education, health and other facilities, including subsidised commodities. These undocumented and unregulated sectors are causing a direct loss to the national economy and indirect loss by keeping workers under unlivable wages and poor working conditions.
It is unfortunate that instead of regulating and controlling the labour market, the state has left the workers at the mercy of their employers. The absence of good governance and an efficient justice system makes the situation worse. There is no one to check the shrinking formal labour sector and growing informal labour sector that is over 75 per cent in rural areas and 68 per cent in urban areas, besides the huge labour-intensive sector of agriculture.
In informal sectors, workers have no access to labour courts, inspections, labour welfare and social security. That makes workers more vulnerable. Even those industries which come under the ambit of the Factories Act, 1934 and had formal labour systems in past now have shifted their major portions to informal bases by outsourcing human resources. Tetrapack is one of the classic examples where three different types of labour are working on different salaries and facilities, under one roof and one employer.
Unfair working conditions in the formal and informal sectors are forcing workers to get engaged in labour without their free will and choice. That, by definition, is forced labour. In Pakistan, 65 per cent of factories are not providing minimum wages at notified rates; in 90 per cent of industries, workers are not provided employment letters to prevent them from demanding their rights. Furthermore, the majority of industries engage 95 per cent of workers through subcontractors who do not allow any sick or casual leave, maternity leave, social security, old age benefit or any other labour right ensured under the Factories Act, 1934. Therefore, these industrial and factory workers should be treated as forced labour. The situation is even worse in the glass bangle industry, coal mines and stone quarries, fisheries, domestic labour, agriculture and brick kilns. In these industries, workers are deprived of their fundamental human rights. Sexual harassment, rape, underage and forced marriages, and trafficking of minor girls are common practices. The Supreme Court of Pakistan in its landmark decision in Darshan Masih Case in 1990 mentioned that brick-making is hazardous work and it is not suitable for women. Supreme Court issued directions to governments to eradicate forced labour and make laws more stringent. Over thirty years have passed since the Supreme Court decision, but the situation of forced labour has not changed except for some progress in Punjab. In 2021, then-Chief Justice of Islamabad High Court Athar Minallah remarked in a case of forced labour that the state presently has failed to abolish it.
It is also worth mentioning here that after an extensive campaign by Bonded Labour Liberation Front (BLLF) Pakistan, the Government of Punjab took serious initiatives for the abolition of child labour and bonded labour at brick kilns in 2015. Then Chief Minister Punjab Shehbaz Sharif personally visited brick kilns and instructed the administration and police to eradicate forced labour. Furthermore, at that time the Government of Punjab also allocated an amount of Rs500 million under the Elimination of Child and Bonded Labour Project (Integrated Project for Promotion of Decent Work for Vulnerable Workers in Punjab Province). Unfortunately, this project could not be properly implemented due to the political crisis being faced by the country at that time.
Here, I would like to briefly share some salient features of the forced labour system prevailing in Pakistan.
The forced labour system is based on offering advance loans called peshgi locally. These debts become accumulated over time through dishonesty and corrupt accounting practices of employers. The practice of extending advance loans is overwhelmingly prevalent in the brick kiln and agriculture sectors, which has resulted in the sector-wide prevalence of the bonded labour systems, in violation of the Abolition Act, 1992.
A majority of the brick kilns and other production and manufacturing units are not registered either with the labour department, social security institutions, or any other relevant government authority. Even those who are registered massively underreport the number of their workers.
In bonded labour system, wages are not paid on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. Instead, a complex accounting system is in vogue which is beyond the understanding of the illiterate and ignorant bonded labourers, wherein merely petty amounts are paid every Thursday to buy only bread but no butter. The major part of earned wages is adjusted against the repayment of loans and fines, if any. The labourers get only a meagre subsistence allowance to survive the succeeding week.
Most of the bonded labour live on the premises of brick kilns along with their families, who are encouraged to informally work with the heads of the families as a family unit, instead of as individual labourers. This practice violates many of the labour rights of women and children, as they do not have the right to minimum wages, maternity leave, or sick leave and are not protected under the relevant labour laws. The presence of women and children along with their valuables like motorcycles, animals etc serves as collateral for advance loans.
Unfair working conditions in the formal and informal sectors are forcing workers to get engaged in labour without their free will and choice. That, by definition, is forced labour.
A majority of labourers working at brick kilns do not have any identification documents such as ID cards and B forms for children issued by NADRA. Lack of any effective citizenship documents results in problems for these workers while seeking medical attention in public health facilities as well as exploitation at the hands of the police; this makes them uniquely vulnerable to debt bondage.
Working conditions at brick kilns, coal mines, glass bangle-making factories and stone quarries are hazardous. There are no toilets at the workplace, clean drinking water, canteen and no daycare facilities for children of working women. The labourers are not provided with any protective equipment while performing hazardous tasks like igniting coal and picking bricks from the brick kilns, etc. Workers are provided rudimentary accommodation near the brick kilns with inadequate sanitation facilities.
In 2016, the Punjab government passed the Punjab Prohibition of Child Labour at Brick Kilns Act 2016, with which the author is not in agreement. It allowed advance loans up to Rs50,000 which has opened the window for the continuation of debt slavery in Punjab. Although it has provided for registration of the contract which is provided in a form appended with the law, the terms of the contract overwhelmingly tilt in favour of the brick kilns owners.
Besides the strict action of the criminal justice system following are the reformative recommendations that can contribute to abolishing the bonded labour system in Pakistan.
The Labour Department should ensure the registration of all brick kilns and other factories under the Factories Act, 1934. The Labour Department should also ensure execution of employment contracts and the maintenance of prescribed registers, under the relevant labour laws.
The mines departments should also ensure labour contracts, social protection and safety measures.
Workers should be provided opportunities for self-registration with the Social Security Department.
NADRA should be directed to ensure issuance of CNICs to brick kiln workers, and registration of their families/children by sending special teams to brick kilns in collaboration with the Labour Department and the brick kiln owners.
No family should be made or allowed to work as a single unit. Instead, each member of a family should be free to work under a separate contract with all the associated labour rights available to him/her under labour laws. The minimum age of 18 years should be enforced to work at any brick kiln.
The Punjab Domestic Workers Act, 2019 should be replicated in all four provinces and Islamabad.
The Directorate of Education of all provinces and Islamabad should be directed to ensure arrangements for the enrolment of workers’ children in schools and the establishment of literacy centres.
The prime minister is urged to once again launch the Integrated Project for Promotion of Decent Work for Vulnerable Workers with the same zeal and zest that he showed in 2015 and 2016 when he was the chief minister of Punjab.
The most important recommendation is the promotion of fair labour unions and civil society, to overcome the maltreatment of workers and also strengthen the economy and democracy. We expect the present government would stand up for workers’ rights.
The writer is the General Secretary of Bonded Labour Liberation Front Pakistan and a recipient of Clinton Global Citizen Award 2015.