Child Labor in Pakistan

Pakistan has recently passed laws greatly limiting child labor and indentured servitude—but those laws are universally ignored, and some 11 milion children, aged four to fourteen, keep that country's factories operating, often working in brutal and squalid conditions

No two negotiations for the sale of a child are alike, but all are founded on the pretense that the parties involved have the best interests of the child at heart. On this sweltering morning in the Punjab village of Wasan Pura a carpet master, Sadique, is describing for a thirty-year-old brick worker named Mirza the advantages his son will enjoy as an apprentice weaver. "I've admired your boy for several months," Sadique says. "Nadeem is bright and ambitious. He will learn far more practical skills in six months at the loom than he would in six years of school. He will be taught by experienced craftsmen, and his pay will rise as his skills improve. Have no doubt, your son will be thankful for the opportunity you have given him, and the Lord will bless you for looking so well after your own."

Sadique has given this speech before. Like many manufacturers, he recruits children for his workshop almost constantly, and is particularly aggressive in courting boys aged seven to ten. "They make ideal employees," he says. "Boys at this stage of development are at the peak of their dexterity and endurance, and they're wonderfully obedient—they'd work around the clock if I asked them." But when pressed he admits, "I hire them first and foremost because they're economical. For what I'd pay one second-class adult weaver I can get three boys, sometimes four, who can produce first-class rugs in no time."

The low cost of child labor gives Sadique and his fellow manufacturers a significant advantage in the Western marketplace, where they undersell their competitors from countries prohibiting child labor, often by improbable amounts. Not surprisingly, American and European consumers are attracted to low-price, high-quality products, and imports of child-made carpets from Pakistan have trebled in the past two decades. Pakistan's carpet makers have satisfied this surging demand by expanding production at existing factories and opening new ones wherever they can. To maximize their returns, virtually all these factories employ children, and an increasing number do so exclusively. Somewhere between 500,000 and one million Pakistani children aged four to fourteen now work as full-time carpet weavers. UNICEF believes that they make up 90 percent of the carpet makers' work force.

Sadique delivers his speech at volume and accompanies it with an assortment of gestures—nods, waves, raised eyebrows—that are as theatrical as they are out of place in his shambles of a workshop. He concludes with a smile and, just in case Mirza does not appreciate his generosity, adds a wistful coda: "I wish my father had given me such an opportunity." Mirza seems doubtful, perhaps because his son is seven years old, perhaps because he has seen too many of his neighbors' children suffer through similar opportunities. But he returns Sadique's smile and says in a faint voice that he hopes Nadeem will learn enough to work one day as a journeyman weaver or, better still, to open a workshop of his own.

Whatever misgivings Mirza has at the moment are overshadowed by his poverty, which is extreme and worsening. He supports a family of five by working at a nearby kiln, molding bricks by hand for up to eighty hours a week. The work pays poorly at the best of times, and on occasion it does not pay at all. Three weeks earlier a monsoon destroyed several thousand unfired bricks that had been left drying on factory grounds. The kiln owner held the workers accountable for the damage and refused to pay them for the two weeks they had spent making the bricks. The "fine," as the owner called it, proved ruinous. Already months behind on their rent and in debt to the village merchants, Mirza and his wife concluded that the only way to avoid eviction was to bond their eldest child to one of the district's manufacturers. Sadique was their first choice: he was prosperous, his workshop was near their home, and he was rumored to have an urgent need for child laborers, which they believed would translate into a high price for Nadeem.

They were half right. The workshop has a perpetual need for children, but Sadique is unwilling to pay a premium for them. For that matter, he is unwilling to pay market rates. Having dispensed with the niceties, he offers Mirza 5,000 rupees ($146) for five years of his son's labor. It's a paltry sum—roughly two months' earnings for an adult weaver. Mirza was expecting an offer at least three times as high. "Business is off this year," Sadique says, by way of preempting Mirza's objections. "When things improve, I may be able to give you another two or three hundred. Many fathers would be glad to get half this amount."

Mirza is distressed. He is a small man, stooped and wasted from his years at the kiln, his skin and tunic flecked with soot. Like most laborers, he is acutely aware of his caste, and in the presence of those whom he deems his betters is deferential to the point of abjectness. Bravely he asks Sadique for another thousand rupees, though he couches the request in the most self-deprecating terms he knows. "Sir, my family's survival depends on your charity. You will always be remembered in our prayers as our savior from beggary and destitution." To his relief, Sadique agrees at once, extending a manicured hand with a speed that suggests he was prepared to pay more and got a bargain. In any event, he can afford to be generous. The money he offers Mirza, called a peshgi, will be paid in installments, and he will deduct from it all costs associated with Nadeem's maintenance and training. Many of the deductions are contrived and inflated. Parents are charged for their children's food and tools, the raw materials they use, the errors they make, the amount of time the master spends "educating" them. Throughout Pakistan parents consider themselves fortunate if at the end of their child's service the master has paid them one third of the peshgi.

Mirza is unaware of these deductions and, eager to make his escape, does not ask questions that might complicate the proceedings. He consummates the deal by shaking Sadique's hand (after wiping his own on his tunic) and accepting from him a first installment of 200 rupees. The parties are bound only by their word: no contracts are signed; no witnesses are present. "Your boy now belongs to me," Sadique says as Mirza pockets the banknotes. "Please understand that so long as he works under my roof he is answerable only to me. Inform him that the needs of my shop take priority over those of his family, and he must do all he can to please me. If he does not, we will all be disappointed, him most of all." Mirza thanks the master for his kindness, bows low, and runs off to relay this information to his son.

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