Iqbal, just like his mother, Inayat Bibi, and his siblings, Patras and Aslam, was unaware of the fight carried out by some revolutionists so that slaves could become free from their master’s yoke. These people gave their lives for others, devoting their time, effort, resources and qualities to building the new society that everybody needed. Their oppressors were there and their mission was to bring and associate the weak together. The message used to be well received by the poor, but it was not easy to get it across to everybody.
Knitting every day, with his master Arshad Mahmood keeping a very close eye on him, the boy from Haddoquey was just another slave in the carpet industry, where the militant actions developed in brick kilns by Bhatta Mazdoor Mahaz had not spread yet.
As a matter of fact, being swamped with complaints from all over the country, the “Brick-kiln Workers’ Front” had not included workers and children enslaved in other sectors of the economy. The resistance against working conditions in brick factories was an isle of injustice amidst a world of inequalities and evil practices from the past.
However, Iqbal and his mates did not know the situation was about to change between 1986 and 1988. In fact, Bhatta Mazdoor Mahaz founded in Lahore by Ehsan Ullah Khan to free brick-kiln child slaves meant to develop their actions in other directions as well. The United Nations had started negotiations to hold the first convention on the rights of the child on the international level, and this issue had begun to draw the attention of the international public opinion. In addition, demonstrations against slavery had also started taking place in India.
An Indian organisation, Bahchus Mukti Morcha (Bonded Labour Liberation Front) was making its voice heard by trying to take legal actions against the federal government, and spinning mill and factory proprietors that employed slaves. The president of the organisation, a charismatic former minister called Suami Agnivesh, openly called people to demonstrate against these evils.
Propaganda of these initiatives in a military-ruled Pakistan, governed by Zia Ul-hag, seemed to be impossible. Those who were activists willing to commit themselves to fighting against bonded labour were accused of “communist agents”, “Zionists” or “Moscow spies” and more than often ended up in jail.
However, in 1988 summer, while the last discussions to finish the text of the International Convention on the Rights of the Child were held in Geneva, something unexpected happened in Pakistan, the dictatorial president Zia died in an accident. The electoral campaign taking place after the Popular Party of Pakistan had come back to power promised a new democratic situation which many Pakistani associations were looking forward to, either to become official, or like Bhatta Mazdoor Mahaz, to evolve and develop.
DARSHAN MASIH’S CASE
There was a second event which was decisive and had direct repercussions on slave workers and children’s fate.
In November 1987, twenty-five slave workers of a brick-kiln in Punjab started to report abuses committed by the owner of the factory, Malik Jahangir, and his guards. A group of workers dared to complain because Malik confined and wanted to sell a deserting worker’s wife in order to recover her husband’s debt. On suspicion that the workers would register the case in the Courts for her release, a group of workers were beaten and cruelly tortured, women raped and children chained… a pregnant woman was even tied and drawn along one kilometre by a car.
When this news started spreading, it caught the attention of different workers’ organisations, such as Bhatta. Meanwhile, the Secretary-General for the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan –created in 1986– who had been commissioned by the Brick-kiln Workers’ Front to investigate abuses inflicted on workers, revealed the tortures they were being subject to. They even had testimonies of workers who claimed the proprietors’ guards had raped their wives and daughters in their presence.
Due to the disclosure of these facts, the atmosphere prevailing after general Zia’s death and the consecutive disappearance of military men, Asma Jahangir together with Ehsan Ullah Khan started actions to ask an economic compensation for the victimised workers. In order to make the right impact, Bhatta’s founder was to bring charges against the government and report it to the Magistrate Court for failing to enforce the Constitution.
18 September 1988 is a historical day. In the case of Darshan Masih and others vs. the State, the Supreme Courts ruled that brick-kiln workers are indeed bonded labourers and that the bonded labour system is inconsistent with fundamental rights guaranteed in the constitution. Thus, the Supreme Court declared that the bonded labour system had to be eradicated. This decision grants labourers the right to work wherever they wish; bans contractors from the bonded labour system; limits the amount an employer can loan employees; and attempts to make specific arrangements to end false arrests of bonded labourers.
The Brick-kiln Workers’ Front photocopied the Supreme Court trial verdict in “Darshan Masih vs. the State”, called it “The Charter of Freedom” and distributed throughout the country, attracting the attention of the public opinion on the issue of slavery and giving slave workers strong arguments against their masters. The impact and consequences of these actions have been decisive.
FROM BHATTA TO BLLF
Influenced by the former Indian minister Suami Agnivesh and his Bandhua Mukti Morcha’s experience, Ehsan proposed transforming the Brick-kiln Workers’ Front into the Bonded Labour Liberation Front (BBLF) in 1988. His intention was changing not only the direction but also the way to operate and the type of actions to carry out. The first organisation, founded as a Union, had a structure that allowed foreign aid. Cooperativism and specific actions to defend brick-kiln workers’ rights were replaced with more general actions to eradicate slave work. 1988 was a decisive year in this regard.
In Haddoquey carpet factory, nothing did Iqbal and his master know about these facts. However, Pakistani carpet industry was in the dock. Factory owners used the banned “paishgee” system to enslave workers, and for this reason, they were also in the eye of Pakistani BBLF.
As a matter of fact, textile factories bore similarities with brick-kilns, but also important differences. The similarities included the employment of intermediaries such as foremen who hired workers and guards to keep watch on wool supply and on slaves’ work.
Another similarity between the brick and the carpet industries were family workshops, where carpet factory foremen forced all the members of the family, including wife and children, to weave. All the carpets produced were sold to wholesalers, and foremen paid families for each carpet produced.
With this system of intermediaries, rich factory owners avoided any direct implication with slave child labour.
CHAINED TO WEAVING
For years the industry which sold these expensive carpets claimed in its propaganda that the nimble fingers of children were essential to form the intricate designs used in carpets and that those children were small enough to fit in little spaces. Apparently, slave child labour was then socially accepted and economically necessary.
Reality was completely different, though. Adult workers could weave carpets with the same dexterity. However, the reasons to employ child slaves were unmentionable. Their wages are extremely low; they are docile and accept terrible working conditions. In case they escape or fail to concentrate on their work, foremen force them to resume their work by using methods such as chaining them to the looms, beating and underfeeding them, or reporting them, like Arshad did, to their parents so that they punish their children themselves.
A NEW TARGET: CARPETS
Slave children were paid lower wages and could be even more exploited than adults. This situation bears resemblance with what happened in Europe during the industrial revolution.
Child weavers inhaling thousands of tiny wool fibres can get emphysema or tuberculosis. Many suffer from scabies and skin ulcers because of their “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, and they do not grow up properly. Their hands ache with carpal tunnel syndrome and arthritis. Yet, they continue working on the verge of exhaustion.
Child slavery in carpet factories was not as evident as in the brick industry. These factories were set up in areas farther from towns and deliberately moved from one place to another so that they were unnoticeable. Small good-quality handmade carpets were generally very difficult to find.
Carpets made in Pakistan were mostly sold to Europe and the USA, which was a decisive potential fact to launch an awareness-raising campaign in order to seek foreign assistance. At that moment the BBLF was going through a stage marked by the international dimension and tactics used to call the public opinion’s attention rather than confront the carpet factory owners directly.
FIGHTING ON EVERY FRONT
Following the lifting of martial law and the first legislative elections called by Benazir Bhutto, the entire country believed democracy was possible. A better relationship between Pakistan and India gave different humanitarian organisations of both countries the possibility of meeting. There was no organic link between Pakistani BBLF and Suami Agnivesh’s Indian BBLF; it was mainly a political rapprochement, based on a mutual effort to raise people’s awareness.
The problems Ehsan and his organisation had started to attack could make any militant of the organisation flinch. Indeed, the Pakistani leader Ehsan, who was a former student of law trying journalism and politics, was discovering a world unknown to him as he became closer to brick workers. Yet, the aim was not only to free slave workers or entire families, such as in brick kilns, but push legislation and politics favourable to the eradication of slavery in Pakistan.
In 1988 dozens of foreign journalists arrived in Pakistan, a country devastated by floods and political changes. This meant an opportunity to draw their attention to slavery and bonded labour. Some journalists, who had gone to Lahore to learn about the important decision the Supreme Court was about to make, started looking into slave labour force.
This interest foreign journalists showed was a new phenomenon. With the foreign mass media there, a new horizon opened for international sensibility. Photos of children’s exhausted faces while working in brick and textile factories started appearing in foreign newspapers and the articles were sent to Ehsan’s organisation.
Then, the Indian and Pakistani BLLF started including children in their awareness-raising programmes, which had previously been addressed only to adults.
A MEDIEVAL WOUND
Carpet industry was not the only sector of economy which used slave child labour. The situation was similar in agriculture; hundreds of thousands of children were sold for few rupees to farmers of small villages. Children had to cross the country to work hard in the fields. The fortunate ones had to watch over buffalos and feed cattle, but most of them had to work long hours in rice fields or with wood from the age of 6 or 7. The youngest ones, subject to the farmer’s yoke, could only increase their debt so that they could get an adobe shanty when they intended to marry. This would be their family house until their first child could be old enough to be sold to another farmer for a good paishgee.
Other sectors employed children who were even younger, more than often with their parents’ consent as their children were their only means of survival. In tanneries in Kasur, for example, it was likely to see children under 10, sun-beaten by being stretching tarred leather on the roofs. In the small town of Kasur, it was usual to find foremen sitting in the shade and wrapped in their immaculate “salwar kamiz” overseeing busy children treating leather soaked in ammonia, impregnated with a foul smell of leather remains and acids used to clean them. Most of these children ended up with skin scalds produced by the acid, swollen stomachs by drinking water contaminated by animal faeces, almost blind by ammonia gases and suffering impaired physical and mental development.
Another district, Sialkot, in Punjab relied on slave child labour as one of its main resources. Sialkot is located in the north of Lahore, next to the border with India. This region had been well-known for its smithy, but at the beginning of the 80s, new products such as sportswear started being manufactured there. Transformed into an industrial city devoted to exports, factories in Sialkot began to multiply their production, which was delivered to more than 80 countries. When the thirst for profits is under way, it rises and is implacable. Tennis rackets, soccer balls, cricket sticks… were manufactured in production lines where hundreds of children spent days sewing pieces of leather, tightening strings and transporting heavy sacks of different products.
Sweatshops hid thousands of family workshops that operated in the same way as brick or textile factories. Children spent the whole day sewing and they could not do anything without their foreman’s authorisation. The dust inhaled after squatting for long hours and chronic malnutrition caused them severe respiratory failure, epidemics, physical malformation and mental retardation.
Other jobs children were forced to do in Sialkot were even more dangerous; these included surgical and precision instrument manufacturing. Many children suffered serious accidents when they wrongly handled moulds used to sharpen scissors and scalpels.
All these boys and girls, either in brick, textile, carpet or sportswear factories, or in agriculture, or in buffalo grazing, suffered the same scourge: the “paishee”, which meant slavery.