Dear Prime Minister, ending bonded labour is not Brandon Stanton’s job, it’s yours

Published: August 19, 2015

She is a Pakistani woman who has been ‘shot, electrocuted, and beaten numerous times for her activism’.

She is a Pakistani woman who has been ‘shot, electrocuted, and beaten numerous times for her activism’. More than two million Pakistanis are reportedly condemned to a lifetime of hardship. PHOTO: AFP

I love brick houses; specifically the feel of those rectangular blocks. But when I know the hands that made those bricks were of a 12-year-old who couldn’t afford a decent meal in the morning, I don’t want to even see one let alone live in one. I cannot hold a passion for those houses anymore.

Bonded labour is a shameful reality in Pakistan, which many are unaware of, as we celebrated our so called independence last week.

So my question is, are we really free?

Without sounding metaphoric, there are helpless people in our country who have been condemned to lifelong labour without or with less than sufficient wages. Brick kilns are being ruled by the rich and powerful through exploitation of our fellow men’s destitution. The owners lend them money in exchange for labour, which has been seen to bind generations upon generations.

The severity of this situation was made clear to me, an average Pakistani, through the American photographer and journalist Brandon Stanton of Humans of New York. On his tour of Pakistan, he shed light upon the story of Syeda Ghulam Fatima who has been working tirelessly for this cause. She is a Pakistani woman who has been ‘shot, electrocuted, and beaten numerous times for her activism’. She is a Pakistani who is fighting our war alone.

According to her, the local police are aware of this folly, but silent due to the brick kiln owners’ generosity with money. She runs an organisation called the ‘Bonded Labour Liberation Front’. Stanton started a fund raiser for this organisation, and currently an estimate of 1$1.3 million has been collected for a goal of $100,000. Anyone is welcome to donate if they wish to.

While people are thrilled at this substantial amount of donations from all over the world, I can’t get myself to feel content, simply due to the role of our government in this matter.

How can the authorities turn the blind eye towards such a critical issue?

Thousands of brick kilns are operating all over Pakistan and the bonded labour system is openly practiced despite the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1992. Imprisonment or heavy fine was supposed to be the punishment if one fails to abide by this law.  But such culprits continue to walk on this land free and proud.

Another similar case revealed a story of a man who fell prey to the feudal system, and has been since the age of 12. He was beaten for holding meetings with other workers regarding their demands for fair wages. When he managed to escape, the owners broke into his house with the help of the police and paraded his daughters naked on the streets.

I admit that raising funds to donate to this cause is extremely important. However, it is not more important than bringing this matter in notice of our leaders. Mr Nawaz Sharif needs to take the plight of his countrymen into account; he can put the road structures of Lahore on hold for now, as such matters need his urgent attention. This is nothing short of slavery and I for one can no longer be a proud Pakistani, for as long this catastrophe remains in this land.

This issue hasn’t received the attention that it deserves, nor have people like Fatima who are facing the brunt of such brutalities. She deserves recognition. She deserves that appreciate her.

Why should one woman walk alone, especially since we live in a democratic nation?

So I’m putting our federal government’s claim to the test. Mr Prime Minister, you have a duty towards your people; don’t make them fight the battles they shouldn’t need to fight at all.

Clearly, Pakistan is not a free nation yet.

Noorulain Sajjad

Noorulain Sajjad

The author is a student of literature, living in Lahore. She is currently enrolled in an M.Phil program.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Ali

    I do not have good writing skills. Was waiting for someone to come up with such a brilliant piece. Thank you for this :)Recommend

  • MJ

    Mr. Nawaz is busy building a business empire, while his spare time is spent having Nihari flown in choppers to wherever he is vacationing. Why would a such a busy and important person have any time for some trivial issue like bonded labor?Recommend

  • Neha Sohail

    Noor. I am really happy to see you writing so brilliantly for such a cause. It is true and very unfortunate to play the game of words for the poorest classes in this country.
    We are in a state of denial sometimes. We tend to believe that everything is alright and happily continuing just because we are the people who belong to a class who owns something, who doesn’t need to bother about matters like bonded labor, child abuse, oppression etc. This is a deception to the very body of this nation.
    May Allah give us the strength and valor to help people and talk about them and their humanistic work. And do something really really valuable for the well being of these peoples.
    Thank you HONY. And congratulations to you Noor, for bringing this matter up to the leader of the nation. No matter how ignorant he is. Well done :) and carry on! Recommend

  • Wahab Tariq Butt

    Yes its the job of govt but you got it a bit wrong here. Its the job of provincial governments and not the Prime minister. All CM’s have shown that they dont have a will to sort out this issueRecommend

  • Parvez

    …….but they don’t have bonded labour in Saudi Arabia.Recommend

  • Sadia Pirzada

    I am in full agreement with you here. And action should be taken from federal level down to the individual level. We ourselves must not think that our only duty is moral condemnation here. Those people don’t need our pity. They need our help. By reading this article, we make ourselves aware of this cruel situation, and in return to do our share as fellow citizens, we must become volunteers/activists. If the government cannot listen or pretends not to listen to this issue then we should rattle as much as we can to get the needful done. Opinion holds power. And ‘opinion can exploit power’. Let the majority do what it’s good at doing: overruling the minority. No matter how affluent or influential those brick kilns owner may be, they stand no chance if we stand together for justice, equity, liberty and happiness of those suffering. Virtue always prevails not by its own intrinsic value but by the defeat of evil. And it is our duty to ensure that it does in this case as well!Recommend

  • Syeda Ali

    Can’t agree more. Can’t feel more ashamed :-(Recommend

  • Adnan Khan

    Thanks for writing on this topic and bringing out the issue to a wider audience.Recommend

  • Gullu

    Excellent blog. Great piece of writing. Could not agree more with the author.
    Unfortunately, the Sharifs are extremely busy.
    And have no time for frivolous things, such as bonded labor, also known as slavery
    Looting a country is a full time job. And requires expertise, accountants, foreign banks, paperless trail and great deviousness. Which they posses. After all they have salted
    away $2.7 billion [US]. So slavery is not on their priority list. Building another falling
    apart metro system, with their standard 30% bhatta, IS priority ONE. Just ask Maryam
    she will tell you.Recommend

  • Haadiyah Zeeshan

    Noor, this is a brilliant glimpse on the real picture. Couldn’t think of a better expression,This is the best drafted piece of what I call ‘Immaculate veracity’. Keep that going!Recommend

  • Dawd

    Islam talks extensively about freeing slaves. The qur’an talks extensively about it, and freeing a slave is an expiation for many major sins. I am not in a position to say whether freeing someone who is working in bonded slavery counts as an expiation for something like breaking a fast. But I would certainly believe that the extreme reward for freeing a slave applies here. So people should support charities and help the poor. Repaying the debt owed by a bonded labourer or their family would be one such act . And we know of abu bakr (RA) who would free slaves, including bilal (RA)

    (yes it can be argued this is in fact encouraging them, but in the absence of an effective top down approach to stopping it, I think this should be encouraged)Recommend

  • Daviduke

    You PM will not budge. It is all in the family from top to bottom.Recommend