The hidden slavery, the menace under the veil of employment, and perhaps the gravest crime in Pakistan would be the words that accurately depict bonded labor.  Bonded labor occurs when an individual commits to labor as security against a debt taken from his or her employer. Once that person enters into such an agreement there is usually no way out. Asian countries have become home to this illness and the case of Pakistan in particular has come into the limelight in recent years.

My curiosity developed regarding this issue after seeing a Facebook post by Humans of New York. Brick kiln factories throughout Pakistan currently occupy most of the country’s bonded labor force and the situation of those affected is horrifying. After visiting the Bonded Labor Liberation Foundation (BLLF), a non-profit organisation which helps those affected by this menace, I became acquainted with the situation of sufferers first hand. William John, a fine man, was kind enough to share his story with me. He has been working in a brick kiln factory in Patoki since 2012 and I was shocked to hear of what he goes through every day.

“The difficulty I face is that I am not allowed to resign from my job and I receive threats regarding my family if I do speak out. I receive only Rs. 500 for my labor of every 1000 bricks despite the rate set by the government being Rs. 962. If a take a loan of Rs. 4000, my employers place me in a Rs. 20000 debt on paper. This is the case with all the brick kiln workers where I work but poor people do not have the strength or resources to stand up against this oppression. Our employers have strong contacts with the police due to which they can easily oppress us. We are regularly beaten if we don’t do our work in time. My family lives with me in the brick kiln factory and is not allowed to leave the vicinity which makes my own situation more difficult,” John replied when I asked him to describe his struggles.

John is only one of the thousands currently facing the same problem. However, if you take a closer look at the conditions in our country, you realise that this was probably bound to happen. It is no secret that most of the people living in Pakistan are below the poverty line and hence often need to take loans to pay off their bills. A lack of education and skill means that the only way these people can earn money is through labor and as John puts it, “I would have never worked here if I had another option.” All of this, coupled with greedy landowners who have made a living through the hard work put in by the poor for centuries, result in a cycle of oppression. Owners of these factories cannot let these labourers leave as they depend on the effort put in by their workers. Hence, they deploy a number of tactics. Muhammad Anwar, a brick kiln labourer in Momenpura (Lahore) who was also eager to share his story, said, “They force brick kiln workers to sign and place fingerprints on documents which claim workers owe the employer a certain amount of money however that is mostly not the case. Workers are beaten until they sign the document, which is why they often give in.” When this cycle is complete, gaining justice becomes an illusion.

As a society we surely cannot close our eyes to this injustice. In fact it is our moral duty to do whatever is in our power to help the victims in gaining their freedom. Be it by helping organisations like BLLF or by simply spreading awareness, we must do our part.

Abrar Haroon