By Alena Sadiq.
About two weeks ago, two bonded laborers, Shahzad and his pregnant wife, Shama, were victims of a mob lynching. The details remain unclear as news reports offer conflicting accounts.
The BBC reports that the family tried to leave town after they became aware of the rumors of their alleged blasphemy and the potential dangers to their lives. The owner of the brick kiln, where they worked, refused to let them leave because of ‘debts’ they owed and locked them in a room. While clerics incited violence through loudspeakers, a mob gathered and dragged the couple out of the room and thrust them into that very kiln, leaving them to burn to ashes. However, an article published in Dawn reports that Shama had an argument with a fellow worker who then accused her of blasphemy. The couple were dragged out of their home and taken to the kiln where their clothes were torn off and they were thrown into the flames. Moreover, a police spokesperson is quoted as saying that a cleric incited the mobs and that the main perpetrators, including the owner of the kiln, have been arrested.
This much is clear: the coupled were accused of committing blasphemy, the local clerics incited violence against them, their employer appears to have been involved in one way or the other and a mob took their lives.
It’s not the first time mob mentality has surfaced in Pakistan. Just last year, thousands of Muslims burnt down a near hundred homes in Joseph colony, a Christian neighborhood, after a resident was said to have committed blasphemy. In a country where a provincial governor is shot dead by his guard for suggesting only that the law be amended, it is clear that blasphemy is the deadliest of allegations.
Allegations of blasphemy are often used to settle personal vendettas and also as a tool to coerce the weak. Shama and Shahzad not only belonged to a minority religion but also were bonded laborers; thus, they were a part of two extremely marginalized groups. Much has been said about why they were killed so heartlessly but little about why they lived lives of such suffering. Ultimately the two questions are linked because their powerlessness paved the way to their unjust killings. In the words of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, “the exploitation of kiln workers is an essential part of the context of the tragic killing and this incident should lead to accelerated efforts to ensure that slavery-like practices that continue despite a promise in the constitution cease without further delay.” The Global Slavery Index estimates Pakistan has more than two million enslaved people, giving it the sixth spot in their rankings. The majority of these people are bonded laborers.
Anti Slavery International defines bonded labor as the labor demanded to repay a loan. It continues on to say, “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 becomes invariably greater than the original sum of money borrowed. Often the debts are passed on to next generations.” Bonded laborers cannot work for any one else and are coerced through various forms of force. Consumed by poverty, they are dependent for subsistence on the employer and this develops into an endless vicious circle. The working conditions are horrendous and child labor is rampant. There have also been reports concerning young people who resorted to selling their organs in the desperation to pay off their debts.
Despite being outlawed since 1992, bonded labor remains at large in Pakistan. A working paper researched by the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research, in association with the International Labour Organization, found that a “labour-should-be-grateful” sentiment was prevalent in both the executive and judicial branches of government; there was a belief that this “relationship” was both a voluntary contract and mutually beneficial to the brick kiln owner and the laborers.
This lack of empathy hardly comes as a shock. Journalist and filmmaker, Fazeelat Aslam, commented on the issue: “The people buying these bricks and supporting the industry are usually people already involved in this industry or the sort of elite of Pakistan who are kind of indifferent to what happens to these laborers. They’ve been dehumanized and are second-class citizens.”
However, there is a faint glimmer of hope. The Bonded Labor Liberation Front (Pakistan) is an organization that has been around since 1988 and has freed more than 80,000 workers from bonded labor. They are a non-profit organization that makes use of both direct intervention and court procedures to free laborers. The BLLF has helped bonded laborers to enter the safety net of social security by compelling the government to initiate the issuance of ID cards to the workers. It has also successfully lobbied for a higher minimum wage for the brick kiln workers. Still, this is not nearly enough. Despite their continuous efforts, their resources are limited and without the support of citizens and government, they alone can only do so much.
Pakistanis, Pakistan’s trading partners and international organizations must pressure the government of Pakistan to act to free the thousands of Shamas and Shahzads from the clutches of modern slavery.