More than 1.7 million bonded laborers exist in Pakistan according to International Labor Organization. Over 10,000 brick factories operate in Punjab of which only 6,300 are registered with the Labour department. These together provide employment to approximately 2.3million worker. The workers are a blend of Muslims and Christians.
Majority of the labor is Christian and entire families are bound to work at the brick kilns because of ‘pehsgi’ or debt bondage. The normal routine of a ‘pathera’ or family working at a brick kiln is rolling balls of clay, placing them in moulds, or dealing with backed bricks under the harsh sun and in a environment marred with thick black smoke from the chimney.
Christian families who are indebted to landlords or due to other issues end up serving at brick kilns for the rest of their lives. There seems to be absolutely no escape. Poverty is what dooms them to typically live and work at brick kilns. Bonded labor has been the dilemma of millions in Pakistan. Due to unavailability of resources to pay off debts many only dream of how a free life would be.
Slavery, a phenomenon thought by many to have disappeared long ago, can still be found in almost every country in the world. After India and China, Pakistan is the country that is home to the most people living under slavery-like conditions. The country has over 2 million people working in conditions as slaves. They are given protection from hunger and homelessness in exchange for their freedom
Hanif Masih is one such man whose freedom was bought by a small Christian organization in Pakistan. His families’ ordeal started when they borrowed RS 35000 from a factory owner who demanded they repay by working and living as slaves at his factory. Despite working from dawn to dusk, his debt never shrunk but kept on increasing due to falsified bookkeeping. He got married and had a baby girl while he kept on working at the kiln. Eventually he had to borrow more to cover expenses. Hanif was lucky his families’ freedom was bought back.
Hundreds continue their daily ordeal of working like slaves. Running away does not help. They are traced, brought back and punished. Stories of rape by factory owners are common. Though some Christian organizations are working on buying back these people from slavery, they all want to be freed. They all await help and fortune, worth a few thousand rupees.