August 20, 2014

Bonded and Forced Labour in Pakistan

What is Bonded Labour?

Bonded labour, also known as debt bondage, is probably one of the least known forms of slavery today but responsible for enslaving millions of people around the world.  A labourer becomes bonded when his or her labour is demanded in repayment for a loan. This advance is known as `peshgi’ in Pakistan. The person is then tricked or trapped into working for very little or no pay, often for seven days a week. The value of their work is invariably greater than the original sum borrowed.[1] A child is considered bonded labour when he/she inherits debt; when the child is used as collateral for a loan; and when the child takes an advance on expected future wages.[2]

The bonded labourer essentially forfeits his/her right to employment, right to move freely, and right to appropriate and sell his or a family members’ property or product of his labour at market value. These are a range of violations of internationally recognized human rights and further include the right not to be held in slavery, the right not to be imprisoned arbitrarily and the right to freedom of association as in trade unions.[3]

Additionally, bonded labourers are routinely threatened and subjected to all kinds of physical abuse by employers. Threats and violence, both by the employer and the local police are used to coerce and discourage the bonded labourer from attempting legal redress or physical escape.[4]

Bonded labourers suffer a range of violations of internationally recognised human rights including:

  • the right not to be held in slavery or servitude
  • the right not to be imprisoned merely on the ground of inability to fulfill a contractual obligation
  • the right not to be arbitrarily arrested
  • the right to liberty of movement
  • the right to freedom of association, including the right to form and join trade unions.

Prevalence of Bonded Labour in Pakistan

Bonded labour is a form of slavery prevalent in Pakistan in various sectors of the economy, most notably agriculture but also brick kilns, carpet weaving, fisheries, mining and probably others. Geographically speaking, the most widespread bonded labour is found in the southern portions of Sindh Province and Punjab Province, nevertheless, anecdotal evidence suggests that bonded labour exists in all four provinces of Pakistan.

Unfortunately, there are currently no reliable statistics on the number of bonded labourers in Pakistan. Indeed, the difficulty involved in obtaining accurate numbers gives some indication of the magnitude of the problem. Brick kilns, which are located on the outskirts of most major cities and towns in Pakistan, operate almost exclusively on the basis of debt-bondage. The ILO estimates that there are over one million men, women and children employed as bonded labourers in brick kilns. The same study estimated that over 1.8 million sharecroppers (agricultural workers) are bonded to landlords in Pakistan[5].

Origins of Bonded Labour and Reasons for Continued Existence

The primary mechanism of bonded labour is debt accrued by the employee to their employer. Employers give loans to their workers and in return, workers (and their families) are ‘bound’ to work for the same employer until the loan is repaid. Due to extremely low wages and dishonest manipulation of the debt by employers (taking advantage of most labourers’ illiteracy) the amount owed typically does not decrease, and can even be passed on from one generation to the next. The majority of Pakistan’s bonded labourers belong to religious or lower caste minorities. Usually, the entire family works, hence, child labour, is widespread. Physical and emotional abuse of labourers is common.

Global reports and studies indicate that the tradition of bonded labour is rooted in socio-cultural mores of discrimination and exclusion of certain segments of society which in themselves are a result of poverty, ethnic and gender biases. In Asia, it has its roots in the caste system and continues to flourish in feudal agricultural relationships. The core factors are poverty and exploitation, people without land or education and desperate for cash to survive, and people willing to exploit the desperation of others.[6]

While the presence of bonded labour in the agricultural sector remains important even today, it is spreading in other sectors of the informal, unregulated economy. This added to chronic unemployment and underemployment, rising disparities in income and the lack of regulation in the informal sector all contribute to the forced labour trap.[7]

In Pakistan the lack of institutional credit in the agricultural sector, and the contract system of employment in the informal sector provides significant explanation for the continuation of this practice. Bonded labour in these sectors is too poor to have access to institutional credit and must rely therefore on employers, money lenders and middle men.

In the agricultural sector, this takes the form of credit to purchase inputs before the harvest in the form of seasonal loans and given the unpredictability of harvest returns increasing indebtedness.

In the informal sector, workers generally work under a contract system, where workers are remunerated on the basis of their output. Contractors are paid by employers to produce a certain amount of goods who then subcontract to workers, creating many intermediaries in this chain. Coercion is rampant to meet deadlines, earnings are low, and invariably women and children are extensively used.[8]

An important practical limitation to freeing bonded labour or implementing well-intentioned anti-bonded labour legislation is the prevailing lack of education or even basic functional literacy amongst bonded labour. Very few have exposure to human rights issues or laws or even a basic awareness of their rights. Most for instance do not even possess the Computerized National Identity card (CNIC), a basic legal document to claim entitlements. They live and work in secluded circumstances and are marginalized and invisible for social and economic reasons. They are unable to even calculate or monitor their basic debts. At times the easier option is to continue the generation old system of indebtedness rather than to venture out into an unknown, more uncertain world.

The strong link between bondage and obligations, bondage and social exclusion, bondage and debt and finally bondage and children creates a vicious cycle of deprivation and dehumanization that can only be addressed through poverty reduction and rehabilitation. It has also been noted by research that Bonded Child Labour must be seen in the context of Bonded Labour in general because these issues cannot be addressed effectively unless those of families and adults are also addressed.[9]

Human trafficking is also a factor in the bonded labour system. Buying and selling of workers between employers is a common practice in both the agriculture and brick kiln sectors. The new employer agrees to take on the labourers debt and pays the previous employer. Sometimes this results from a labourer requesting a move to another place of work, other times it is done by force. Internal migration is also a major issue – many bonded labourers in the agriculture sector originate from desert areas and migrate to the irrigated belt during times of drought.

Where is Bonded Labour mainly found?

Under the auspices of an ILO project PEBLISA-PEBLIP: Promoting the Elimination of Bonded Labour in South Asia and Pakistan, the Ministry of Labour coordinated with the ILO in 2004 to produce a series of rapid assessment surveys in ten economic sectors including agriculture, hazardous industry, carpets, mining, brick kilns, and domestic work and begging. Although the rapid assessments were unable to numerically assess the magnitude of the problem, the surveys provide a general picture of the relevant issues at work in each sector, and where further research is required. Issues raised in this overview and its recommendations can be used to develop workshop training themes for specific target audiences.

Debt Bondage in Agriculture

The chronic and growing debt (mainly because of chronic deficits in household budgets) that the tenant or worker incurs while working in the agriculture sector is the main reason for bondage. The lack of alternative employment opportunities in rural areas is also an important cause, where more and more small and marginal farmers are becoming agricultural labourers. The growing population is an obvious reason, but so is the lack of administrative and economic management ensuring minimum wages for the agricultural workers.

Bonded labour was found to be most prevalent amongst agricultural sharecroppers in parts of Sindh and Punjab. In Punjab, a permanent group of workers, called `seeris’ and mainly from non-Muslim castes, were found to be particularly at risk. This was also largely because their homes were located on employer land and the threat of eviction was a powerful coercion tool. Detailed surveys are recommended for these areas and in Southern Punjab, where tenants are also exploited through bad maintenance of accounts and delayed clearance.[10]

In Sindh bonded labour was found to be a serious problem in certain districts: Mirpurkhas (including Umerkot), Sanghar and Badin. The survey suggests that the key problem is that of rural landlessness and poverty and that a reassessment of land reform and the enforcement of tenancy regulations as prerequisites for improving the tenants’ lot. An immediate measure has been singled out as improved access to credit and alternative sources. Improvements are also essential in all provinces in record-keeping and third party vigilance over these. In view of illiteracy levels amongst the labourers, the report suggests that Vigilance Committees at the district level could be used. Resettlement approaches have been used primarily by HRCP and some NGOs in Sindh to help labourers escape the bondage trap. More attention needs to be given to the long term success of this if the labourers are not to fall back into the debt trap with ineffective social and work rehabilitation and assurances.[11]

Bonded Labour in Brick Making

There is a high prevalence of indebtedness in the brick making industries since virtually all unskilled and semi-skilled labourers get advances from kiln owners `jamadars.’ These debts are particularly high and essentially un-repayable for low status migrant workers, the `patheras’ who prepare the clay and unbaked bricks. These workers, including women and children are paid piece rates well below legislated rates of pay for the sector, and because they are internal migrants and do not enjoy the support of extended families and communities and are therefore especially vulnerable to exploitation. Suggested remedies include increasing income for the worker to reduce the need for loans, and/or some adherence to a minimum piece rate which would require registration of workers as well as significant monitoring.[12]

Bonded Labour in Carpet Industry

The percentage of rural bonded weavers was found to be higher than that of urban carpet weavers. Bonded labour is comprised of mainly adults who have taken advances to meet emergencies and children whose parents have pledged their labour in advance. The latter was found to be prevalent in Punjab and Thar district of Sindh (where drought conditions exacerbate poverty and need for income). In general, Punjab showed the highest incidence of debt bondage with Sindh following. KP and Balochistan showed the least incidence.

Recommendations for this sector included further baseline research, and an improved monitoring system by the provincial labour departments who are understaffed and powerless to check gross violations. Micro-finance programs need to be re-visited to ensure effectiveness. Present loans under the Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund are seen to lead to further indebtedness given the high interest rates. As with all other industries where debt bondage is prevalent, bonded child labour is a necessary corollary. The provision of adequate and affordable education facilities may help in reducing the incidence of the latter. [13]

Bonded Labour in Domestic Work and Begging

The survey found bonded labour in domestic service but not in begging. In domestic work, coercive relationships and contracts exist between employers and employees in rural areas, and between urban employers and employees of a common rural background. The domestic worker is generally expected to be on call 24 hours a day. In the begging sector, while `peshgi’ itself is absent, some labour arrangements come very close to outright slavery. Vulnerability to violence and abuse was also prevalent in certain sectors. The linkage between the begging sector and sex work brought risks of sexual violence and sexually transmitted diseases, particularly for young unmarried girls. Children who work in both the begging and domestic work sectors, generally away from their parents, are also at risk. In both sectors, work is started very young thereby destroying any opportunity for either education or protection. Work is largely un-documented in the domestic sector which further compounds problems of monitoring and protection.

Further research is required on the issues of dependent migration of rural workers with employers to urban areas; the different communities and activities involved in begging and the impact on already marginalized social groups.[14]

Bonded Labour in Hazardous Industries

Some evidence of coercive and abusive labour arrangements were found in the construction industry but not in others such as the glass bangle-making and tanneries sectors. In the glass bangle-making sector, caste-based cottage industries allows for some level of employer-employee solidarity, albeit restricting outside options of individuals. In the tanneries sector, the prevalence of sub contracting leads to insecurity and dependence of labour although there is no coercion or abuse.[15]

Bonded Labour in Mining

Bonded labour in the mining sector takes on a slightly different form than that in the agricultural sector. Whilst free labour is not part of the contract (extra work generally results from large families working in the same work), indebted labourers are forced to continue work for mine owners for low wages under bad working conditions particularly since mines are located in remote areas and little alternative work is available. This is particularly true in Balochistan where the high quality coal mines are located. The labour agent recruits workers on the basis of social linkages but there is no traditional bond, observable in agriculture, between the worker and the employer. The labour agent, the jorisar, tracks down escaping labourers, since he is generally from the same area. Where peshgis are paid to more than one member of a family, they are held as collateral in the event that one tries to escape. The advances are also sometimes passed from one generation to the next. Apart from the force and threat of violence, the unequal relationship between workers and employers are exacerbated by the high incidence of collusion between the mine owners and middlemen and local police against the labourer as well as collusion of the mine-owner and local police officials against both the middlemen and labourers.[16]

Bonded Child Labour (BCL)

The exact dimensions of bonded child labour remain disputed. Various research bodies and NGOs have made estimates based on information that they have. BLF estimated 8 million bonded child labour in 1992 of which half a million was in the carpet industry. SPARC estimated 10 million child labourers in the country in 1999. An ILO/IPEC study in 1998 stated that two thirds of total child labour was in agriculture. The US Department of State Human Rights Report 1998 estimated that 60% of total child labour was in Punjab.[17]

Human Rights Watch/Asia’s investigation into the prevalence of bonded child labour found that this was present wherever there was adult bonded labour. Physical, psychological and sexual abuse is meted out to the child labourer as it is to his/her adult counterpart. The cash advanced or payment made for a child’s labour, however, invariably goes to the responsible adult or parents. The severity of the work conditions is normally greater than for adult workers since children are easily exploitable: they are normally paid less if anything at all and they work longer hours, sometimes in isolation from their families (as in mining and carpet weaving). The additional psychological trauma of being sold into bondage by their parents, and/or being abducted by contractors or employers cannot be justified by the general excuses of parents regarding poor educational facilities, or the complicity of the authorities in turning a blind eye to such transactions.[18]

In the brick kiln industry, which operates almost exclusively on the basis of debt bondage, the vast majority of workers are children. Many of these began work before their teenage years, indicating generational indebtedness, are not compensated and have high mortality and disease rates, of which chest infections, deteriorating eyesight and blindness are common.[19]

The condition of children in the brick-kiln industry is known both to the government of Pakistan and international agencies. Discover the Working Child, specifically states:

The children start working alongside their parents at a young age, between 6 and 8. They work long hours, starting at dawn during the hot season and working until late in the afternoon with a short break during the day. There is typically no shade in the working grounds and they are exposed to the scorching sun in the summer and suffer severe cold in the winter. They work barefoot and continuously inhale fine dust from the clay and noxious gases from the coal burning kilns. What makes the situation of the majority of the children of brick-kilns labourers especially untenable, however, are the particular circumstances arising from the indebtedness system under which they and their families live and work. The children cannot wait indefinitely for new laws and the social climate to make a difference in their life. Efforts to break their isolation, to integrate them in the surrounding schools, and accelerated programs of education must start immediately.[20]

Child labour in the carpet industry has been estimated by various organizations and studies to amount to 1.2 million children in Pakistan. In fact over 80% of carpet weavers in the country are estimated to be children below the age of 15 years. The low cost of Pakistani carpets internationally requires maintaining low labour costs domestically which results in bonded and child labour. While legislation prohibits the use of child labour in the formal industry, middlemen have advanced money to families to set up home based weaving units, or carpet weaving centers are encouraged to break up into smaller units employing less than 10 workers who are outside the purview of the law, or units are moved to rural settings, remote from government vigilance. Indebted rural families keep children in forced labour conditions for years. They sit in cramped positions for long periods of time deforming their spines, they inhale wool dust affecting their lungs, and they work in poor light destroying their eyesight, and contact with chemicals and dyes damage their fingers. Those working outside their families are psychologically, physically and sexually abused. They are often threatened by violence for disobedience and punished for failing to make deadlines on deliveries or making mistakes in orders.[21]

In the mining sector, the increasing burden of peshgis coupled with low, piece-rate wages leads to the use of child labour in mines. The boys’ average age is from 10-15 years. To lighten the burden of peshgis, some workers have taken to involving their children or younger brothers in mining. These boys can be as young as 10 but the majority are closer to 15. In Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, the boys mostly take the donkeys underground to load them with coal; in Sindh and Balochistan, more children were seen working in the communal kitchens. Some children have no other relatives in the mines and the most vulnerable to sexual abuse and increasing drug use.[23]

The US Department of Labour, Bureau of International Labour Affairs frequently compiles information on child labour in export industries. In 2008, the report pointed to the widespread use of child labour in the carpet industry where much of the production is from a family run cottage industry. In the surgical instruments industry, which exports mainly to the US, child labour was also found to be widespread especially in the grinding and sanding of surgical instruments. In the sporting goods industry, children were found to be working, stitching footballs, in cottage-level family units, because of the notoriety already gained by child labour in the formal industry.[24]

Possible Interventions to Redress Situation

The overview of bonded labour in Pakistan presents the stark reality and continued existence of this problem throughout the country but specifically in the agricultural, brick making and mining industries. Despite the prevalence of the problem however, there also exists potential for redress. This toolkit summarizes some of the recommendations made in the overview and suggests that these are used in specific advocacy and training techniques.

First, awareness-raising of Bonded Labour can take the form of detailed surveys of areas and sectors where the incidence of BL is high. Besides the agricultural, mining, brick kilns’ sectors, further documentation is also needed, for instance, of domestic workers and beggars in urban areas and the extent to which bonded labour here is a result of marginalization and migratory pressures.

Second, the lobbying of potentially influential persons in specific issues is also an important advocacy tool. For instance, detailed lobbying programs can be developed for the issues of minimum wages in the agricultural sector or brick kiln industry or sub-contracting in the mining industry. An additional area for lobbying could be in calling for the regularization of tenancy laws. Lobbying could also target trade unions particularly the export oriented industries where minimum educational provisions can be pushed for.

Capacity building and training of partner organizations in innovative or effective rehabilitation processes can help in improving the long term sustainability of re-settlement efforts. Training in community mobilization skills can also be extended to organizations intending to make micro finance interventions in particularly distressed communities. Training of government officials can be developed in record keeping as well as in enhancing their monitoring and vigilance mechanisms.

This list of proposed advocacy measures is not exhaustive. It offers the trainer some interesting points of departure that can be taken from a discussion of the prevalence of bonded labour in the country.

Pakistan benefits from an excellent legal foundation for eradicating bonded labour. Apart from various international conventions which have been ratified by the country, the Constitution, Supreme Court rulings and Acts of Parliament also proscribe the use of forced labour. The issue is that of non-implementation and is rooted in either political unwillingness or inability to implement the law.


[1] www.antislavery.org/homepage/campaign/bondedinfo.htm

[2] www.freethechildren.org

[3] Human Rights Watch – Asia; Contemporary Forms of Slavery in Pakistan; 1995:3.

[4] www.sparcpk/org/crs_bonded_labor.php

[5] Bonded Labour in Pakistan, ILO Working Paper (DECLARATION/WP/01/2001) 2001

[6] www.antislavery.org/homepage/campaign/bondedinfo.htm

[7] A Global Alliance Against Forced Labour: ILO Global Report 2005, p.1

[8] Human Rights Watch – Asia; Contemporary Forms of Slavery in Pakistan; 1995:13-16.

[9] Child workers in Asia; Understanding Bonded Child Labor in Asia; Child Workers in Asia Task Force on Bonded Child Labor 2007: 2-7

[10] GM Arif; Bonded Labor in Agriculture: A Rapid Assessment in Punjab and NWFP; ILO Work in Freedom, Working Paper 25, March 2004; pp21-22

[11] Hussein et al; Bonded Labor in Agriculture: A Rapid Assessment in Sindh and Balochistan; ILO Work in Freedom, Working Paper 26, March 2004; pp31-32

[12] A Global Alliance Against Forced Labor: ILO Global Report 2005, p.34 and PILER; Unfree Labor in Pakistan: Work; Debt and Bondage in Brick kilns; ILO Work in Freedom; Working Paper 24; March 2004; pp.40-4.

[13] Zafar Mueen Nasir; A Rapid Assessment of Bonded Labor in the Carpet Industry; ILO Work in Freedom; Working Paper 23; March 2004; pp.19-25

[14] Collective for Social Science Research, Karachi; A Rapid Assessment of Bonded Labor in domestic work and begging in Pakistan; ILO Work in Freedom; Working Paper 22; March 2004; pp.41-43.

[15] Collective for Social Science Research, Karachi; A Rapid Assessment of Bonded Labor in hazardous industries of Pakistan: glass bangle making, tanneries, and construction; ILO Work in Freedom; Working Paper 21; March 2004; pp.55-56.

[16] Ahmed Saleem; A Rapid Assessment of Bonded Labor in Pakistan’s Mining Sector; ILO Work in Freedom; Working Paper 20; March 2004; pp11-13.

[17] See Worst Forms of Child Labor data in www.globalmarch.org

[18] Human Rights Watch Asia; Contemporary Forms of Slavery in Pakistan, 1995 pp104-106

[19] Human Rights Watch Asia; Contemporary Forms of Slavery in Pakistan, 1995 p.40

[20] Human Rights Watch Asia; Contemporary Forms of Slavery in Pakistan, 1995 pp58-61

[21] The rapid assessments in 2004 also found that the effects of debt bondage in carpet weaving were particularly harsh on children.

[22] Human Rights Watch Asia; Contemporary Forms of Slavery in Pakistan, 1995 pp70-75

[23] Ahmed Saleem; A Rapid Assessment of Bonded Labor in Pakistan’s Mining Sector; ILO Work in Freedom; Working Paper 20; March 2004; pp11-15.

[24] www.dol.gov/ilab

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