Iqbal’s brief biography

Share Button

At 4 years of age Iqbal was sold by his father into bonded labour in a Pakistani carpet Factory in Punjab, in order to get his family a loan to pay for the wedding of Iqbal’s oldest brother.

The debt incurred by the loan required that Iqbal weave carpets 12 hours a day, receiving one rupee for a full days work. However, due to the exorbitant interest of the loan, the loan just got bigger and bigger.

After he turned 10, Iqbal heard a speaker from the Bonded Labour Liberation Front (BLLF), a Pakistani community-based organization dedicated to freeing children from such child slavery. Iqbal obtained a copy of their Charter of Freedom, a pamphlet about the rights of children. Iqbal used this to get free. From that moment, he became an active campaigner against child slavery.

On 16 April 1995, at the age of 12, he was shot dead by the carpet mafia while cycling with his cousin in a village field.


Iqbal is soldIqbal Manifestación

In 1982 a baby boy was born to Inayat Bibi and Saif Masih. They named him Iqbal Masih. Sometime after Iqbal’s birth, Saif Masih deserted the family. While Iqbal’s mother worked, his older sisters took care of him and his older siblings. Iqbal did not go to school. Education was not compulsory or widely available in Pakistan. Very few poor children learnt to read and write. He spent his earliest years playing in the fields until he was ready to help his family by going to work.

By 1986 an older son of Saif Masih was about to get married. The celebration would include feasting and processions. Weddings are very important to the people of Pakistan. Wedding celebrations are often held even if a person is short of money or out of work. Saif Masih was no exception. He knew that as father of the groom, he had to pay for part of the festivities, even though he had deserted his family.

Like most impoverished child slaves, Saif had never been able to save much. No bank would give him a loan. He could not apply to the government for aid because there were few programs to help poor people. People such as Iqbal’s father are forced to turn to local moneylenders, local employers, or landlords to get the money they need. In Muridke, many poor people simply borrow from a local thekedar, an employer who owns a nearby carpet factory. In return for the loan, the employer expects collateral, a guarantee of something of value to secure the loan. Said Masih’s only valuable possessions were his children. Saif asked Iqbal’s uncle to contact the thekedar. The thekedar was willing, probably only too happy, to lend Saif money. In return, one of Saif’s children would go to work in this fast-growing business. Iqbal, a scrappy four-year-old, was considered ready to work. The uncle borrowed 600 rupees (approximately $12) from the contractor. Little Iqbal would weave carpets until all the money, including an undisclosed amount of interest and expenses, was paid back. This transaction is called a paishgee, a loan, and it ended Iqbal’s childhood forever. From that day forward, Iqbal became a “debt-bonded slave.”

Inhumane conditions

Iqbal’s job at the carpet factory was essentially no different from that of millions of other young people who work day and night to help their families. At four o’clock in the morning, he was picked up by the thekedar and driven to the factory where he was to work for the next six years of his life. He was put in an airless room, big enough for about twenty looms. A small, bare light bulb gave out little light. It was sticky and hot inside the room because all the windows were sealed tight to keep out any insects that might damage the wool.

Iqbal took his place in front of a large wooden carpet loom. He was to squat on a small rutted wood platform. In some factories children sit on cushions. Other factories have trenches dug into the floor to hold the looms in place. The weavers sit on a plank with their legs dangling into a trench. These trenches also provide sleeping places for the children who work far from their families. Large balls of coloured wool were hung because of the gorgeous flowers, majestic trees, exotic birds, and sophisticated geometric designs woven in the carpets. The ustaad, teacher, explained the process called “knotting”.

When Iqbal completed his work as an apprentice, he was then ready to weave carpets. He worked beside twenty other boys. His earnings amounted to one rupee a day (two cents), even though he worked from four o’clock in the morning until seven in the evening. The children in the shop were not allowed to speak to one another. “If the children spoke, they were not giving the complete attention to the product and were liable to make errors,” Iqbal later told journalists. Many other freed child slaves told similar stories.

Lint and fluff floated in the air. Iqbal would breathe it in and cough it out. Sweat poured down Iqbal’s face as he leaned close to the loom. The thekedar screamed, “Don’t soil the wool!” At night he was driven back to his family. He was too tired to play his favourite sport, cricket. “I didn’t have time to play ball,” he explained later. It didn’t take long for the bounce to fade from Iqbal’s walk.

Iqbal and his fellow weavers were warned never to leave the factory during work hours. “If we tried to escape, we were threatened with being thrown in boiling oil,” he said. “If we were too slow, we often got lashed on our backs and heads.” Concentration was crucial. Mistaking a single knot led to fines or beatings. Daydreaming could have serious consequences. The sharp, crescent-shaped weavers’ tool would slip and nick his fingers. This happened many times.

Once, when Iqbal was so exhausted he began to doze off, the sharp knife slid, digging into the flesh of his forefinger. “Hold your hand up!” the thekedar shouted. “Don’t let the blood drip!” The carpet master did not want Iqbal’s blood to stain the precious wool thread. To stop the bleeding, the carpet master dripped hot oil onto the wound. The oil, used to seal the wound, stung horribly and Iqbal screamed. His screams were answered with a slap on the head and an order to get back to work.

Every afternoon the child slaves were given a half-hour lunch break. Iqbal said, “We were kept hungry.” The thekedar provided the youngsters a small portion of rice and lentils. Sometimes there would be a few other vegetables added to the meal. The cost of this simple meal was immediately added to the children’s paishgee, increasing their debt.

The cramped, overheated conditions inside such factories often lead to disease. Weavers inhaling thousands of tiny wool fibres can get emphysema or tuberculosis. Many suffer from scabies and skin ulcers because of the “constant exposure to wool”. More often than not, their posture is bowed because they are forced to squat on the wooden platform for long hours. Their hands ache with carpal tunnel syndrome and arthritis.

Iqbal said, “We weren’t allowed many days off. Even sick children were not allowed to rest.” If a child weaver complained that he was too sick to work, the chowkidar locked him in a dark closet known as the punishment room. “they also hung children upside down until they became sicker. Children were beaten,” said Iqbal.

Although most bonded children are docile and obedient, they are are not afraid to talk back. These children are often hit, chained to their looms, or locked in dark, musty closets. Iqbal would often talk back.  He was beaten more often than the other children because, time and time again, he defied the master. He spoke up when he thought something was not right. “Sometimes I was fined.” In a way, the fines were worse than the beatings. They raised Iqbal’s debt higher and higher. Instead of paying off his bondage, he was increasing the time it would take to earn his freedom.

In factories similar to the one where Iqbal worked, children are battered for all kinds of reasons. One young boy was not a good weaver, and the chowkidar constantly hit him with a stick. A researcher reports, “Once, after he made a terrible mistake, the foreman took a shearing knife and made a deep cut between Salim’s thumb and index finger. The boy was so terrified of the foreman that he did not dare raise complaint.”


In Pakistan, children are forced to work in brick kilns, agriculture, carpet factories, restaurants, and factories manufacturing all kinds of goods from furniture, and sports goods, to surgical equipment. They also work as domestic labourers, where they are often exposed to mental and physical abuse and separated from their parents, being kept in a state of virtual imprisonment.


Brick Kiln workers in Pakistan are a clear example of slave child labour. Bricks are produced in Pakistan in manual and industrial processes. Brick factory owners get their supplies of labour force from Zamadars, labour supply agents who hold labourers as prisoners while the factory needs their services.

Slaves are bonded to the owners through a system of advanced payments (paishgee) whose interest rates are so high that workers can never repay them fully. Their children and wives are then forced to take responsibility for the debt. That creates a pool of bonded or slave child labourers who are tied to the owners of the brick making factories for life, being unable to escape their “obligation.” Workers and their children are traded from one owner to another. Some workers are sold more than 10 times. Wives of the workers are also bonded labourers; they are mostly exploited, both physically and sexually.

No education or medical facilities are available for these children. Escape is not possible due to the close associations between the owners and the local police force. About 60 percent of the children start work below the age of 13. The mortality rates among children are high and they suffer from blindness due to the presence of high degrees of lead in the mud. Blindness among older workers is around 15 to 20 percent. Owners insist that the children work unless they have to look after younger siblings. Mental torture for these children is horrific. They live in fear, witness physical violence meted out against their parents. Their reactions are different from normal children, according to Mrs. Asma Jehangir, a human rights advocate in Pakistan, “They do not surround a car or a vehicle entering the kiln premises but run away in fear.”

Although women are an integral part of the labour force they do not receive any separate wages. Marriages of young girls are not encouraged. The labour-suppliers run prostitution dens and supply women to the owners. Several incidents were reported where widows and abandoned women were sold to recover outstanding debts of the workers.

Illiterate workers are unable to verify their outstanding debts. As a result they, along with their children, will be slaves for the rest of their lives.


Feudalism is very strong in Pakistan because in history since the country independence most of Pakistan’s parliamentarians and ministers have come from the feudal class lords of Pakistani society. They hold thousands of hectares of lands for which they have never paid for. The feudal lords and politicians are not required to pay tax and have borrowed billions of rupees from banks that they have not paid back. Some of the prominent members of this class save their black money in bank accounts in Switzerland and other countries. Due to these economic practices, Pakistan’s foreign debts exceed 38.8 billion dollars.


In 1967 the Bonded Labour Liberation Front of Pakistan (BLLF) began its campaign to both free the brick kiln bonded labourers, and totally abolish the paishgee debts. The BLLF fights against slavery, private jails, forced labour and child slavery in all sectors, including brick making, carpet weaving, leather trades, medical instrument manufacturing, agriculture, stone quarrying, domestic servitude, etc. BLLF freedom movement faces challenges and opposition from strong employers in these and other sectors.

From January 1999 until May 2009 BLLF freed 30,000 bonded labourers, men, women and children from four provinces of Pakistan. They belong to different sectors like agriculture, brick kiln, stone quarrying and carpet industries. 45% of them were children, 25% of them were women and 30% were men. These bonded workers were freed through Habeas Corpus applications, which were filed in High Courts. Due to BLLF’s lack of resources, they have been unable to build rehabilitation programs for the newly freed bonded labourers and many of the children are  still waiting to go to school.

“Our victories amount to a hardship,” says Ehsan Ulla Khan, the BLLF’s founder and guiding force. “The state has done nothing to enforce the anti-slavery laws or even to inform the public that child and bonded slavery have been outlawed. It’s evident that if the enslaved workers are to be delivered from bondage, private citizens will have to do the delivering. That is, we will have to proclaim the end of slavery, educate workers, monitor employer compliance, and take legal action when necessary, because the state lacks the will and resources to do so.”

With little funding, the BLLF wages a two-front war against the enterprises that use child slaves. While its legal advisers engage the courts and the legislature, its field staff shuttles around the country, informing workers of their recently acquired rights and distributing a pamphlet known as “The Charter of Freedom,” which enumerates those rights in simple language. If a bonded slave child or adult asks for its help, the BLLF takes whatever legal action necessary to secure his or her release.

Iqbal Masih was one of those freed from slavery in the carpet factories by the BLLF.

These days a surprising number of workers are refusing the pamphlet and turning their backs on BLLF staff members. This is an expression less of ingratitude than of fear. Employers throughout Pakistan are cautioning their workers against consorting with reformers who spread “false rumours” about the end of bonded labour. Many workers have been threatened with dismissal or violence if they speak with “the abolitionists” or are caught with “illegal communist propaganda.”

So effective is the factory owners’ disinformation campaign that workers literally flee when approached by BLLF staff members.

Share Button