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
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
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
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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