Bondage in Pakistan

by David Gilbert

Toward Freedom magazine, June/July 1997


It is an enclosed area surrounded by fifteen-foot walls, covered with barbed wire, and turrets at each corner .... [B]onded peasants would spend their days working under the supervision of armed guards in fields. In the evening these peasants were confined to the jail and chained to iron fetters. During many nights the women would be raped in the jail by the guards. A number of children were born from such assaults .... At times of illness, workers were not allowed to visit a doctor. The only food provided was some flour and occasionally chili peppers. The peasants were under constant surveillance, and the right to any privacy was denied. Defecation occurred in the open, as did sexual relations.

From Human Rights Watch/Asia, Slavery in Pakistan 1995


The "inmates" in the compound described above aren't convicts: They're all-too-typical examples of forced labor in Pakistan. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan estimates that 20 million persons, in that country of 130 million, are subjected to slavery, trafficking of women, serfdom, or debt bondage. Women and children suffer the worst abuses.

The main form is debt bondage. High unemployment, low wages, and periodic crop failures frequently leave workers and families facing starvation, and with no alternative but to borrow money from employers. The only means of repaying the loan is the worker's labor and, usually, that of his whole family. Pitifully low wages (typically $3/day for an entire family), employers' deductions for workers' living expenses and fines levied for alleged labor infractions, and 100 percent yearly interest rates combine to ensure that the debt will never be liquidated. In fact, it often gets larger, condemning that family's next generation to debt bondage as well.

For example, "'Navgi' ... was unemployed for a number of years ... and thus in 1983 he borrowed [$60] and started working at the brick-kiln. He did not know that the pay structure ... was such that it would be impossible to repay the loan .... He, his wife and children work together ... [H]is current debt is [$1.50]."

Forced labor violates international and Pakistani laws. But landlords, industrialists, and merchants who enrich themselves in this way are regularly protected by their connections and power in government. In fact any worker who makes a complaint against the illegal and intolerable conditions is likely to be arrested and beaten by police.

The main industries exploiting bonded labor are agriculture, the brick-kilns, and carpet-weaving. While each has its own heinous conditions and health hazards, there are certain common features: how the debt is incurred, the frequent bondage of an entire family, 12-16 hour workdays, scandalously low wages, the near impossibility of working off the debt, and repression of any resistance.

Women face additional, brutal layers of oppression. They aren't recognized as independent workers. The women's and children's wages are credited to the male "head" of the family, subjecting women to a severe power inequality and potential abuse within the family. Pregnant women aren't given maternity leave; instead, they are expected to work through their pregnancies and return to work three days after giving birth. Then they carry the double burden of labor in the fields or factories and family care.

Bonded-labor women are at the economic and physical mercy of their employers. This makes them constant targets for sexual abuse and outright rape. But a woman who complains to the police is likely to be humiliated and then, in effect, raped again by the criminal justice system. Rape is tried under Pakistan's Hudood Ordinances, which place an extraordinary burden on the victim to prove that the intercourse was forced. If a woman, whose testimony is usually given less weight than a man's, fails to meet that burden of proof, she in turn may he prosecuted under the harsh Ordinances against fornication and adultery. Needless to say, most rape victims don't seek legal redress.

The millions of children in bonded families often start work between the ages of six and eight, and are forced to work long hours under terribly hazardous conditions. Studies show that 74 percent of bonded children suffer illness and injury such as respiratory infection, eye damage and blindness, and deformed growth. Seventy percent of these children are beaten to enforce work discipline. Many of them are sexually abused.

These horrors may seen a world away from "civilized" America, but the ties that bind are very intimate in the global economy. Much of the bonded labor agricultural produce and virtually all (99 percent) of the carpets are exported, with the US and several European nations as Pakistan's main trading partners. The extensive use of agricultural bonded labor results from the replacement of subsistence farming, where peasants grew food, with large-scale commercial production of cash crops for export. This restructuring arose from economic imperatives imposed first by British colonialism, then by the US-prompted "Green Revolution of the 1960s, and currently by the World Bank and IMF's structural adjustment mandates.

Meanwhile, the US government which is so adamant in its ruthless economic boycott of Cuba has happily funneled billions in dollars in loans over the years to the Pakistani military and continued to the flow of trade, which is made so lucrative over the bodies of raped women and deformed children.

Important struggles against the conditions there are now being waged by groups like the Bonded Labor Liberation Front and War Against Rape. Their example is a product of Pakistan that would be most beneficial to people in the US.


Reprinted from Toward Freedom, a progressive world affairs magazine, August 1997

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