The plight of brick kiln workers in the country, for the first time, came into prominence when the then Chief Justice of Pakistan took notice of the subhuman practice of bonded labour upon the request of a brick kiln worker named Darshan Masih in 1988. In this case, the apex court outlawed the very practice of bondage in the country. Ever since, the brick kiln industry in Pakistan has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. The issues in discussions, of course, range from bonded or child labour at brick-kilns to adverse environmental impact of this industry. The media and the superior judiciary in Pakistan have, indeed, played an instrumental role in sensitizing the country’s executive and legislature towards this grave issue involving the fundamental rights of a large number of brick kiln workers who are obviously part of one of the most suppressed and marginalized segments of the society.

There have been introduced, at times, a number of enactments, both at national and provincial levels, to effectively protect and promote the rights of brick kiln workers in Pakistan. Such laws have resulted in legally abolishing some undesirable practices at brick kilns, including the bonded or forced labour and child labour, altogether. Regrettably however, there couldn’t be put an end to such inhume practices going on in the country owing to lack of resolution on the executive’s part to properly enforce these laws. Consequently, a large number of brick kiln workers are still forced to work in slave-like conditions across the country. The Global Slavery Index is a periodic report by a globe study group publishing the country-by-country rankings on modern day slavery figures and government responses to tackle the issues. A recent Global Slavery Index has ranked Pakistan 6th out of total 167 assessed countries in the world. It has revealed that more than 3 million people are living in “modern day slavery” in the country. It is, no doubt, an abysmal situation which needs careful thought and serious consideration.

When it comes to enforcing the labour laws aiming to eliminate bonded and child labour, luckily enough, there is just an important and positive development in Punjab. This month, the Lahore High Court has directed the federal and Punjab governments to ensure implementation of all relevant laws in letter and spirit to completely eradicate child and forced labour from all sector of the economy, including brick kilns, agriculture, mining, tanneries, carpet weaving, glass-bangle making, construction and fisheries etc. Mr. Justice Tariq Saleem Sheikh, converting a habeas corpus petition into a constitutional petition to treat it as the public interest litigation in Muhammad Suleman v. SHO etc. case, has issued a 32-page order at LHC Bahawalpur bench.

After discussing various aspects of the menace of child and bonded labour in Pakistan in detail, Justice Tariq Saleem Sheikh, in his exhaustive judgment in this case, has provided a comprehensive but pragmatic legal modus operandi to get all relevant laws effectively implemented so as to eliminate such menace from the country. The court has issued guidelines and certain directions to concerned government officials and departments to diligently perform such public duties they are supposed to perform in compliance with a number of existing laws. Apart from ensuring effective compliance of labour laws, the judgment also throws some light on the very scope and historical evolution of the Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in Pakistan. This judgment, therefore, is by all means a landmark judgment. To me, following the SC’s historic judgment in the 1990 Darshan Masih case, this judgment is really the second milestone reached by our superior judiciary on the long judicial road to public interest litigation protecting individuals against slavery or bonded labour.

Though the judgment under discussion is generic in nature prohibiting the practice of bondage and child labour across the board, it is specifically focused on protecting brick kiln workers’ rights in Punjab, the country’s largest province. First of all, the court has directed the provincial Labour & Human Resource Department to complete registration of all brick-kilns in the province under the Factories Act, 1934, within six months. It is a good endavour to formally register and regulate the brick kiln industry which previously was only part the economy’s purely informal and unregulated sector. It will certainly help improve things at brick kilns by extending the standardized health, safety and sanitation regulations to this neglected industry too. The court has directed the Punjab government to notify the District Labour Committees (DLCs) across the province to effectively implement the Punjab Prohibition of Child Labour at Brick Kiln Act, 2016, which strictly prohibits employing any child below the age of 14 years at brick kilns. And for this specific purpose, all Deputy Commissioners in the province have also been directed to ensure registration of all brick kiln workers and their children by NADRA within six months.

The court has also tried to ensure the effective implementation of the Punjab Bonded Labour (Abolition) Act, 1992. It has again directed the Punjab government to notify the Provincial Vigilance Committee in addition to District Vigilance Committees (DVCs) across the province in compliance with the said Act. The brick-kiln owners or managers have been prohibited from giving any amount exceeding fifty thousand rupees to their workers as advance (peshgi). They have also been directed to maintain a Register of Advance in the prescribed manner. Such practice would help protecting the rights of both brick kiln owners and workers. Similarly, the court has also directed all District & Sessions Judges in the province to include the issue of child and bonded labour on the agenda of every meeting of the Criminal Justice Coordination Committee.

The court has also taken some measures for the welfare and economic well-being of brick kiln workers. It has issued directions for the registration of brick kiln workers under the Provincial Employees Social security Ordinance, 1965, to ensure provision of social security benefits to them. The government has also been directed to effectively implement the Minimum Wages Act, 2019, to protect these workers against underpayment of wages. Simultaneously, there are also certain court directions to provide basic health and education facilities to workers’ children.

The Continuing Mandamus is an important judicial process whereby a court of law endavour to provide relief to anyone by issuing a series of directions periodically to an authority to do its duty or fulfill an obligation in general public interest. It is indeed an effective legal tool employed by the courts to monitor the performance of an authority and ensure compliance of their judicial orders. In Pakistan too, the superior courts have been resorting to this procedure in public interest litigation. The Supreme Court has adopted such legal procedure in the Panamagate case in 2017. Essentially in line with the “doctrine of continuing mandamus”, the LHC bench has also decided to ensure compliance of its judicial order in the Muhammad Suleman v. SHO etc. case. The court, therefore, will be monitoring the performance of the concerned authorities in Punjab to make them implement all relevant laws to eliminate bonded and child labour from the province.

The superior and lower courts in the country hear and decide a large number of cases daily involving the infringements of workers’ rights. The government, however, is primarily responsible for enforcing all enactments and regulations to maintain peace and tranquility in the society. Since the Lahore High Court has issued some detailed directions to ensure compliance of labour laws, the government should now seriously comply with court orders. The government of Punjab should appoint a senior official as coordinator or focal person to monitor and mobilize the provincial Home and Labour Departments to proactively enforce relevant laws in line with the recent LHC bench directions. It is indeed the primary legal duty as well as a constitutional obligation of the government to protect tens of thousands of downtrodden brick kiln workers against unfair and inhumane and labour practices across the province.

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Mohsin Raza Malik

The writer is a lawyer and columnist based in Lahore.mohsinraza.malik@ymail.com

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