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The brick kiln slaves of Pakistan

Church organizations support the rights and education of heavily exploited workers in the brick industry

Published: May 27, 2021 02:26 AM GMT

Updated: May 27, 2021 02:52 AM GMT

The brick kiln slaves of Pakistan

A laborer loads baked bricks into a cart at a brick kiln in Bath village near Lahore. (Photo: Kamran Chaudhry)

In 2018, Rafiq Gulzar took a peshgi — an advance payment against labor — from a bhatta (brick kiln) owner to arrange the dowry for his daughter.

In return, he committed to make 1,000 bricks every day at the kiln in Jhang district of Punjab province to pay off the loan of 400,000 rupees (US$2,590). A few months later, he was sold to another kiln owner in Bath village near Lahore. His family was allotted a two-room house cemented with cow dung.

A Jesus calendar decorates the otherwise bare wall of his bedroom. A worn-out wooden door hangs at the roofless toilet. His daughter, now a mother of a one-year-old child, uses cow dung cakes to heat the mud hearth in the kitchen.

Together with his four sons, Gulzar wakes up at 4am every day to dig soil and prepare mud for molding the bricks till midday. The mud must be softened in the evening for the task next day. The government of Punjab has fixed wages at 1,295 rupees for the production of 1,000 bricks but laborers like Gulzar get only 1,200 rupees.

“One thousand rupees are deducted for house rent and utility bills. We hate the rain as it weakens the mud bricks left outside to be sun-dried. Cold winters and illness also hinder work,” Gulzar told UCA News.    

“Advances taken in such emergencies and dependence on kiln owners swell the loan. My wife earns a few thousand as a housemaid. Despite the hard work, it’s difficult to save money.”

Gulzar is one of the millions of bonded laborers in Pakistan. He is also among some 5,000 Christians at a kiln in Bath, a Muslim-majority village that houses four churches including a Catholic church.

Slavery entrenched in Pakistan

Pakistan is considered one of the states where bondage and labor exploitation are most deeply entrenched, affecting the lives of poor laborers and their families.

The country stands eighth in the Global Slavery Index with an estimated 3,186,000 people living in modern slavery. The products at risk of forced labor include bricks, coal and carpets as well as crops including cotton and sugar cane.


A laborer preparers clay at a brick kiln in Bath village of Pakistan.

Recent surveys have estimated that about 4.5 million people, including some 1 million children, work in slave-like conditions at around 20,000 brick kilns in Pakistan. At least half of them are women.

Many belong to already marginalized religious minority communities such as Christians in the Muslim-majority nation.

Christians make up 2 percent of Pakistan's population of 220 million. Most languish at the bottom of the social ladder. Largely uneducated, they work as street sweepers, trash collectors, farmhands and other menial laborers.

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The presence of Christian laborers in brick kilns is also much bigger than their national percentage.

For example, some 60 percent of workers living and working in brick kilns of Punjab province are Christians. Their number decreases in the southern regions, but no detailed data on workers is available.

Bonded labor is also most widespread in agriculture, particularly in the interior of Sindh and southern Punjab province. It involves landlords selling and buying laborers, maintaining private jails to discipline them. Cases of landlords and police raping female laborers also are reported.

According to Hari (peasant) Welfare Association, 3.1 million rural workers are trapped in debt bondage in the agriculture sector.

ICF International, a Virginia-based global consulting firm, in 2012 estimated that some 106,000 people worked in Pakistan’s carpet industry and 31.5 percent of them were children below the age of 14.

Pakistan’s coal mines in mineral-rich Balochistan province, where Afghan miners make up around 50 percent of the workforce, employ some 100,000 miners between the ages of 13 and 34.

Of them, only 12,000 miners are registered with the mines department, while the huge majority of 88,000 are unregistered. Rights activists say the majority of workers live and work under inhuman conditions for 16-18 hours a day for a pittance of $10 per week.

The Slavery Index considers women in forced marriages as slaves. According to the Centre for Social Justice, 162 questionable conversions of religious minorities were reported in the media between 2013 and November 2020.

The incidents involve Muslim men kidnapping young Hindu and Christian women and forcefully marrying them after converting them to Islam. More than 54 percent belonged to the Hindu community, while 44 percent were Christians.

All workers in brick kilns are not are bonded laborers, but their social and economic poverty forces them to lead subjugated lives.   

In 2014, a Christian couple working as laborers at a brick kiln in Kot Radha Kishan town of Kasur district were locked up, beaten and then thrown on top of a lit furnace by a mob of about 1,000 people incited by accusations that they had desecrated the Quran.

It is common to find women and children working side by side at kilns as patheras, who shape the unbaked bricks, a job that includes the preparation of the clay.

Jamadar (senior workers) arrange the labor, distribute advances and earnings after debt-servicing deductions, guarantee repayment of debts and sometimes supervise the work.

Advance payments vary on the basis of the household productivity of the bricks and negotiations between the owner of the kiln — who often leases the land from its owner with a contract that usually specifies the depth to which mud can be excavated — and the head of the household.

A brickmaker bonded to a kiln lines up mud bricks under the sun at a kiln in Bath village in Pakistan.

Many kiln managers provide loans to workers who are then unable to repay them and have no choice but to work as slaves — a practice that is widespread in southern Punjab and Sindh despite being outlawed in 1992.

The district magistrate has the authority to try the suspect under the Bonded Labor Act 1992 and a minimum 50,000-rupee penalty could be imposed along with further punishment. Without national identity cards, brickmakers are easy targets for trafficking, exploitation and abuse.

According to the State of Peasants’ Rights in Sindh 2019 report released by Hari Welfare Association, 5,639 bonded peasants and their family members were released from the captivity of landlords in Sindh between 2013 and 2019. Thirty-one percent were women.

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Church intervention 
 
In June 2020, Father Abid Tanveer, vicar general of Faisalabad Diocese, joined the diocesan Caritas team to distribute food packages among 35 families of brick kiln workers at Khurryanwala.

The following month, Amjad Gulzar, executive director of Caritas Pakistan, joined the diocesan unit of Lahore Archdiocese to distribute nutrition kits among children living in a bhatta in Sheikhupura.

Amjad Gulzar (standing third from right), executive director of Caritas Pakistan, at a brick kiln in Sheikhupura after distributing aid packets for children in the kiln.

Church commissions like the Justice and Peace Commission of the Major Religious Superiors Leadership Conference are struggling to fight the prevalent bonded labor with awareness sessions.

The commission has been working for the rights of brick kiln workers in Punjab and helping to prepare their national identity cards and social security documents since 2004.

In the past seven years, the commission has succeeded in getting national identity cards for 20,000 brickmakers and social security cards for 400 bonded laborers.

It also secured freedom for some 1,000 workers by waiving their advance payments through court orders.

Since March, Hyacinth Peter, executive secretary of the commission, has inaugurated 10 houses for Catholic brickmakers and their widows in Francisabad village in Punjab province.

“Many brickmakers are bound to live near the kilns because of no jobs or a place to live. Covid-19 has restricted funding for the project. We are using personal resources to build small one-room houses to provide them a shelter where they can live with dignity,” said Peter.

Hyacinth Peter (left), executive secretary of the Justice and Peace Commission of the Major Religious Superiors Leadership Conference, inaugurates a house for a brickmaking family in Francisabad, Punjab province.

“Brick kiln workers face physical torture and sexual harassment if any of their male family members manage to run away from the kiln. Owners threaten us with severe consequences if we demand a raise in return for our labor.

“Debt chains feed the brick industry with cheap labor and a continuous supply of young workers. The possibility of advances attracts most of the workers, who often need to ask for additional loans which cannot then be repaid. If the laborer dies, the debt is passed on to the children. Family loans can pass from one generation to the next. They follow their debt from one kiln to another.”

According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, children working in brick kilns have a higher rate of mortality, while one in 20 children lose their eyesight. Around 35 percent of female workers in brick kilns have been victims of torture and harassment, the commission stated in its latest press release.

The hidden star

Shamoon Mansha, 21, was tortured by a brick kiln owner in Bath after his father helped a news channel to film a documentary about their kiln in 2006.

“He remained in hiding for two years after the kiln owners joined forces to take action against the facilitator. I was beaten with a stick and pressured to disclose his whereabouts. But I kept adamant. Later the owner agreed not to hurt my dad,” he said.

Mansha began working at the brick kiln when he was four. The Backwards Rehabilitation and Improvement Commission Pakistan (BRIC Pakistan), an NGO running literacy centers for juvenile brickmakers, supported the Christian family and helped in paying back their debt of about $600 in 2009.

Shamoon Mansha shows a Swedish magazine covering his visit to Sweden as a jury member of the World's Children's Prize Child.

In 2016, Mansha was selected as a jury member of the World's Children's Prize Child, a Swedish program that educates and empowers children to become change makers. Since 2017, he has visited Sweden three times with Liaqat Javed, founder of BRIC Pakistan.

“It was a dream sharing the stage with Queen Silvia and Asa Regner, the former Swedish minister for children and the elderly. My exposure changed my life,” said the sixth-grader who now runs a BRIC Pakistan literacy center for other children at his own house in Bath. 

“It was the first time I saw people treated as humans. I have made hundreds of international friends to support our cause. My brothers now work in garment factories and an industrial estate near the village. I am helping the youth find similar careers with better employment benefits outside the kilns.”

BRIC Pakistan

Since it was established in 1997, BRIC Pakistan has secured the freedom of 70 brickmakers like Mansha’s father by paying back their loans. Twenty of them are Muslims. Javed, the Christian executive director of BRIC Pakistan, used to make bricks in Bath. The father of three still carries a scar from a shovel on his left foot.

“My family was under a debt of 24,000 rupees but they admitted me to a nearby government school. I used to help them mold the bricks on returning home in the afternoon,” he said. 

While studying in grade 12 at Forman Christian College of Lahore, Javed wrote columns and engaged in social services to return the loan. Now he runs nine-month courses at 10 literacy centers in Punjab province. Thirty primary centers are being run in brick kiln communities for younger children. More than 1,000 have received basic education in centers based in brick kiln communities.

In retaliation, brick kiln owners have registered three police cases against Javed. In 2004, he was attacked at a kiln while securing the freedom of a family.

“The younger brother of the kiln owner didn’t know about my negotiations with his family and had gathered more than 10 armed workers. On receiving the payment, they tried to snatch my mobile phone and wallet. By the time the owner arrived, I was dazed,” he said.

Two police cases were also registered against him.

“Bonded labor is also prevalent in the surgical instruments industry. Children as young as 12 make surgical instruments in hazardous conditions in cramped workshops filled with metal dust and the noise of the grinders, polishers and generators. Human rights groups in Pakistan are focusing more on the brick kilns,” said Javed.

In April, the chairman of the Federation of Pakistan Chamber of Commerce and Industry claimed that exports of surgical goods and medical instruments reached $500 million in the last financial year.

In 2012, Swedish missionary Birgitta Almeby of the Full Gospel Assemblies Church (FGA) was shot in Lahore. BRIC Pakistan supporters helped many brickmakers to learn sewing and other skills at FGA technical education centers. She died in Stockholm after she was flown back to Sweden for specialist medical care.

“In 1997, an NGO took my sister and her friend to Sweden where the media portrayed them as leaders of change," said Javed, nicknamed Cha Cha (uncle) by young brickmakers.

“Their passports were taken upon return to Lahore airport. They were threatened by a government official critical of their activities. They were again forced to work at a brick kiln with their families," he said.

Javed said the plight of his sister and her friend forced him to launch his own NGO to work for the lasting freedom of brick kiln workers.

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