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Empty & Tied: The Hands That Work the Hardest

Horse and Tattoo show 2010 at Race Club. Lahore

Have you ever wondered why the hands that work the hardest are empty and tied? If a person is unemployed, their poverty is somewhat understandable. But it is beyond comprehension why those who generate wealth for their employers remain poor.

Brik kiln workers are a case in point: They work their hearts out with little protection against the elements, often as family units with pregnant women and small children contributing – and yet they are among the poorest of the poor in our country.

Allama Iqbal could be thinking of these people when he wrote, in his famous poem “Lenin in the Presence of God”:

“You are omnipotent and just, but in your world Life is unbearably harsh for the toiling hand”

A recent report on the juvenile and bonded labourers shows how the labourers are bound to work at brick-kilns and in other nonregulated industries even along with the minors of their families, sometime round the clock and without any break.

The issue of juvenile bonded labourers was highlighted in a pro bono petition filed in the Islamabad High Court (IHC). IHC Chief Justice Athar Minallah constituted a commission comprising senior lawyers, human rights activists and a senior journal- ist to ascertain the miseries of brick-kilns labourers.

However, in addition to the brick-kilns labourers who have been bounded with advance loan or peshgi the mine workers are also confined within compounds bounded by barbed wires at excavation sites.

How to establish a just relationship between capital and labour is one of the most important and complex questions that every society has faced at every age. None of us has an easy answer – anyone who tries to come up with a simple and easy solution is bound to fail.

The Supreme Court of Pakistan in the case of Darshan Masih had declared bonded labour illegal and had waived the debts of all the workers. The advance system was declared a thing of the past by the law – but whether the court order is being implemented is a different story.

During the commission’s proceedings, an opinion emerged from government officials that the issue of bonded labourers was simple and straightforward. The solution is to close all the kilns in Islamabad at least for now – and then reopen them. Permission to reopen could then be granted on the condition that the advance system will not be allowed to come again. Little do our exalted mandarin realise that the biggest loser from the closure of the kilns is the labour.

Besides, there are other industries where the labourers face similar situation. The advance system is practiced in agriculture, fisheries, mining and carpet making. So even if the exploitative system is successful- ly banished from the kilns, what about these other industries?

Another important point is that many of those who have analysed this issue before are of the opinion that there is no need for pre-existing and forced labour in some industries, such as football in Sialkot. There are industries where the advance system is prevalent but workers are not subjected to forced labour – and there are industries where workers are not given an advance, but they are still victims of a kind of slavery.

The solution may be establishment of Unions for industries. The root of the problem is that at present our environment as a whole is not conducive to union-building.

Another solution will be the written agree- ments. In Pakistan, the contracts between the capitalist and the labourer are seldom written. When the agreement is in writing it will relatively easy for the worker to claim his right.

A new, comprehensive and common-sense labour law could also help. Dozens of labour laws have been made in Pakistan. All are written in English, meaning they are not accessible to illiterate workers. A labour-friendly law will have to be in a local language.

Then there is the matter of provision of resources to the Labour Department. At present, the Labour Department in Islamabad is virtually dormant due to a lack of resources. The commission recommended waiver of advance loans commonly known as peshgi to enable labourers to work as per their free will.

Subsequently, IHC Chief Justice Athar Minallah directed the district administra- tion to launch awareness campaign for the labourers telling them that they are not under any compulsion to work at the brick-kiln against their will and free to switch the job.

The commission found that the practice of extending an advance loan or Vicious Debt is overwhelmingly prevalent in the entire sector of brick-kilns without exception which has resulted in sector-wide continuation and prevalence of bonded labour system in brick kilns despite its abolition by the Abolition Act, 1992.

“No brick kiln is registered either with the Labour Department, ICT, social security institutions, or with any other government authority relevant to the issue in hand”, the report said, “Labourers working in brick-kilns are not registered either with the Labour Department, ICT or with any other social security institutions.”

Explaining the juvenile labourers the report stated that “Most of the bonded labour lives at the premises of brick-kilns along with their families. Womenfolk and children are encouraged to informally work with the heads of the families. They are encouraged to work as a family unit, instead of as individual labourers. This practise violates many of the labour rights of womenfolk and children.

The commission recommended that the Labour Department, ICT ensure registration of all brick-kilns under the Factories Act, 1934, within three months of 1 February 2021.

The Labour Department, ICT, shall also ensure execution of employment contracts and the maintenance of prescribed registers, under the relevant labour laws, the report recommended adding that the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) should be directed to ensure issuance of CNICs to brick kiln workers, and registration of their families/children by sending special teams to brick-kilns within three months.

The report says no child below the age of 14 years shall be employed or permitted to work at any brick kiln, in line with Part II of the Schedule of the Employment of Children Act, 1991, kilns being part of the building and construction industry.

It advocates for every engagement or appointment of a worker at a brick-kiln to be subject to a written contract in the prescribed form, drafted preferably in Urdu or a regional language.

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