Ending the Bondage of Kiln Workers

Shaukat Chaudry

When in 1992 the Supreme Court of Pakistan gave its historic decision for the abolition of bonded labour, the most affected brick kiln workers had the chance of improvement in their lives. Along with the brick kiln workers, people from all walks of life, the trade unions and workers praised this decision, which revolutionised the lives of these workers.

In Pakistan the brick kiln workers were creatures whose lives were filled with torture who were forced to work without their own free will. The brick kiln owners considered the workers as their slaves. This is a profession in which even in the light of law the brick kiln and other workers still live at the mercy of the owners. It seems as if only one person is the employee of the brick kiln owner but in reality that person’s whole family is the employee of the brick kiln owner. At the kiln the wages are determined by the production of a thousand bricks. At different times the wages per thousand bricks have been different. For a long time the brick kiln owners would decide the wages per thousand bricks and give it to the workers.

The day and night struggle of the labour organisations and the decision of the Supreme Court changed this situation entirely. The continuous torture done to brick kiln workers by their minuscule wages and deprived lives was exposed in the media. After the historic decision of the Supreme Court the government officials actively paid attention to brick kiln workers. Different orders were issued as to the wages for manufacturing a thousand bricks. Those who would not follow the new rules and pay heed to them would be questioned. Brick kiln workers themselves started feeling as if they had been freed. Those who would pay the workers in advance, forcing them to work for them, were also restricted by the Supreme Court because paying in advance was banned and those who would continue would be severely punished. The advance which was given to the brick kiln workers by the owners was declared null and void.

After 1992 the brick kiln workers became more organised and finally they were heard. The owners would also make brick kiln workers do work on a contractual basis. For the time being even this practice was lessened, but soon the scenario began to change again. The brick kiln owners started again to force the workers, enslaving them again by giving advance payment against their labour. When the workers failed to repay this advance money the brick kiln owners would take the worker’s family and force them to work for him as an imprisoned family. This was the why the brick kiln workers had knocked on the doors of the courts. They got justice, but as our social and political system is under the cruel control of feudal and tribal lords, it is nearly impossible to implement the law, so the kiln workers began to lose their will and hope. It was normal practice to kidnap the children of kiln workers, even their daughters and wives. Furthermore, it was also normal to lodge fabricated cases against the workers who raised their voices against the owners’ practice and were locked up and tortured. They are using the same tactics against kiln workers as before.

Normally it was believed that after 1992 kiln workers lived in better conditions and were getting full payment of their labour after the agreement, but it all ended as an illusion. In October respected Syeda Ghulam Fatima of the Bonded Labour Liberation Front invited me to their office on Lawrence Road, Lahore to give a lecture to the kiln workers on the “Labour movement and its effects on Society”. I reached the BLLF office early and found 60-70 labourers including young and old, men and women, waiting for me. After a brief introduction I talked to them for an hour and a half. I also answered their questions and Syeda Ghulam Fatima also joined us.

After the discussion I came across shocking facts about the life of kiln workers that could not be imagined. They made me think that we were living in a backward 17th century society. In the gathering was a woman who was brutally tortured by a kiln owner just to impose his will, leaving her whole body full of bruises. Her brother, who had just come back from jail after completing his sentence in a fabricated murder case, was also with her. They were so scared that they did not want to lodge a complaint to the police nor did have a medical checkup. They further said that they had arrived at the BLLF office, after a struggle of 3 days, barefooted and with only the clothes they are wearing here.

The other workers also told their stories about how they are compelled to do bonded labour, getting short payments, living even without water and other necessities of life. Furthermore, they told us that anyone who raised their voice against the kiln owners was tortured in different ways. They could not even think of running away from that hell as all family members live in a place provided by the kiln owner and his men are always there to watch them. Most of the kilns are in rural areas and all the cruelties kiln workers face normally are not noticed.

Secondly, all the kiln owners are influential, powerful and politically affiliated, representatives of ruling parties, members of the National Assembly and provincial assemblies. Even if any worker complains to the police, they do not take any action against owners. When in cities organisations raise their voices, protest, and hold meetings the administration often acts but ultimately things turn out in favour of those who have the muscle power.

One of the most awaited demands of the kiln workers is to be registered for social security and get social security cards. The kiln owners were not ready to do this at any cost but when pressure was mounted the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Iftikhar Chaudhry, ordered that all cards should be issued before 30th October. On his orders the implementation started with speed and the process is going on. It will be a miracle even if they complete registration of 2.3 million workers in the coming years.

There is no doubt that the role of the Supreme Court is highly praiseworthy in giving rights to kiln workers but there are still hurdles and bureaucratic and administrative deadlocks. BLLF and other organisations are raising their voice for the rights of kiln workers, but let us see when these workers enter the 21st from the 17th century, when they get full wages for their labour, when they will get rid of the chains of slavery and become free and when the elites of the ruling political parties along with the feudal and tribal lords start accepting and treating the workers as human.

Shaukat Chaudry is General Secretary, Pakistan Mazdoor Mahaz.

Translated from the Urdu by Parma Abbas.

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