We live not in an age of information, rather the excess of it. As per a report published on Telegraph, an average person produces six newspaper worth of information. And as we become ‘well-informed’, as a by-product, we have also become desensitized. The constant influx of new information makes it impossible for us to delve deeper into an issue. Our well-intentioned shares/tweets gets marred by our wish to appear ‘updated’. Hence, we click, read, share or tweet (to each its own) and forget. That is the dilemma of it all.

Back in August, the Human of New York page brought to light the persistent problem of bonded labor – equivalent to slavery in the modern day – still prevalent in Pakistan. The story which retold the plight of a woman fighting against odds to free brick-kiln workers from the shackles of slavery, resonated with millions. The post, which became viral on social media, managed to raise an astounding $2 million in charity to free bonded brick workers. An important lesson learnt about the power of social media.

However, as the HONY post faded into distant memory with the invasion of more recent and ‘pressing’ matters on our newsfeed, the problem of modern-day slavery stayed put, looming large in the rural areas of the country.

In 2014, the Global Slavery Index (GSI) ranked Pakistan as the 6th highest in terms of modern-day slavery. Also, with almost 2 million Pakistanis enslaved in bonded labor, the country was ranked third in terms of the number of people suffering this cruel fate. With Sindh and Punjab as the hotspots; agriculture, carpet weaving and especially brick making industries were identified as industries responsible for keeping most of the workers ‘enslaved’. The brick making industry alone employs an estimated 4.5 million laborers across the country out of which most are enslaved.

No surprise as bricks constitute 3% of the GDP in Pakistan which enables their owners, usually feudal lords, to instant riches. Exploiting the problems of the uneducated villagers with limited resources, the kiln owners operate with impunity, forcing them and their generations to a never-ending cycle of debt-bondage.

Despite bonded labor being recognized as unlawful under the 1992 Bonded Labour Abolition Act, an estimated 20,000 kilns operate in the country, most of which rely on ‘slaves’ that work 24/7 under the most inhumane conditions.

The major problem that feeds into the issue of debt-bondage is extreme poverty and lack of education. In Punjab and Sindh, where the literacy rate (ability to read and write) is 60% and 54% respectively, the villagers’ chance at a better life is marred by their limited resources. Hence, with no viable option and no skill at hand, getting employed at the brick kiln appears as their only chance of survival. Working for extremely meager wages, the workers are usually tricked into debt bondage when they are forced to acquire a small loan from their employer due to some financial emergency, which in no timeballoons to unfair terms. And the workers, who pledge their entire families to the de facto owners, continue to slave away in these kilns with freedom remaining a distant dream.

However, with the civil activists given a new voice, the issue is being highlighted with a renewed fervor. The Bonded Labour Liberation Front (BLLF), which was covered by Humans of New York page, has helped release 80,000 workers from their influential brick kiln owners. 

And with the issue gaining momentum, the severity of the situation which was previously underplayed by the government, is being paid due attention. For starters, the government has finally created a ministry of Human Rights which will be spearheaded by Barrister Zafrullah Khan, who has worked as legal and human rights consultant on women, children and labor issues with different UN organizations, INGOs and NGOs. 

Moreover, a campaign to support enrollment of the children of brick kiln workers into nearby schools, was inaugurated by the Punjab Labor and Human Resource minister on August 26. In close collaboration with International Labor Organization closely, the focus of the campaign is towards encouraging children of brick kiln workers aged between 4-14 years to enroll in schools. Under the ‘Off to School’ campaign, the Punjab government will provide free education, school bags and books to the children enrolled to schools under the project.

Though district vigilance committees are expected to monitor the scheme, one can only hope that they are empowered and remain corruption free so that the 6,090 brick kilns that this exercise aims to ‘monitor to gauge the sustainability of the scheme’, are observed not just in theory but in actuality.

Though commendable, these are plans that will show long term results, not immediate. How does the government plan to free the families from their never-ending debts that is the backbone of this hideous cycle of slavery? How does it plan to deal with the proprietors of the kilns who practically own the lives of not only the brick workers but also their families? Will these ‘owners’, who are influential in their own right, be intimidated by the possibility of district vigilance committees doing their job? Or will they use the power of green, like always, to stifle the voice of justice?

In order to effectively and swiftly end the stigma of modern slavery, the government needs to come up with ways that ensure the escape of these workers. They need to come up with committees/governing bodies that are independent and expeditiously formed. From harsher punishments for these ‘de facto’ owners to strict monitoring for those officials who provide sustenance to these methods should be observed.

And while the progress against modern slavery culminates into action, we as active members of society need to continue to raise our voice for these under-privileged souls. We need to play our part, systematically and effectively, so as to ensure that rather than becoming just a part of our social media feed, these stories be told and re-told so that nobody forgets their plight until they are finally free.