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
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The Charter of Freedom

With a government that is at best ambivalent about social issues and an industrial sector resistant to workplace reform, the task of abolishing child labor has fallen to the human-rights community. But in a country where corruption is pervasive and education scarce, social activists are everyone's natural enemy. The ruling class despises them for assaulting its profitable traditions. The lower castes suspect them of ulterior motives. (Laborers are forever asking activists, "Why would an educated man trouble himself with the poor?") Consequently, activists are frequent targets of slander, police harassment, and lawsuits. They are beaten just as frequently, and on occasion they are killed.

Yet they persist, and sometimes they prevail. If human-rights organizations are judged by the number of people they have helped, the Bonded Labor Liberation Front is probably the most successful in Pakistan. Since its founding, in 1988, the BLLF has led the fight against bonded and child labor, liberating 30,000 adults and children—frequently entire families—from brick kilns, carpet factories, and farms, and placing 11,000 children in its own primary school system (its motto: "Struggle against slavery through education"). At the same time, it has won 25,000 high-court cases against abusive and unscrupulous employers, and helped to push the recent labor legislation through the National Assembly.

"Our victories amount to a hardship," says Ehsan Ulla Khan, the BLLF's founder and guiding force. "The state has done nothing to enforce the anti-slavery laws or even to inform the public that child and bonded labor have been outlawed. It's evident that if the enslaved workers are to be delivered from bondage, private citizens will have to do the delivering. That is, we will have to proclaim the end of slavery, educate workers, monitor employer compliance, and take legal action when necessary, because the state lacks the will and resources to do so."

With little funding, the BLLF wages a two-front war against enterprises that use child and bonded labor. While its legal advisers engage the courts and the legislature, its field staff shuttles around the country, informing workers of their recently acquired rights and distributing a pamphlet known as "The Charter of Freedom," which enumerates those rights in simple language. If a bonded laborer—child or adult—asks for its help, the BLLF takes whatever legal action is necessary to secure his or her release.

These days a surprising number of workers are refusing the pamphlet and turning their backs on BLLF staff members. This is an expression less of ingratitude than of fear. Employers throughout Pakistan are cautioning their workers against consorting with reformers who spread "false rumors" about the end of bonded labor. Many workers have been threatened with dismissal or violence if they speak with "the abolitionists" or are caught with "illegal communist propaganda."

So effective is the factory owners' disinformation campaign that workers literally flee when approached by BLLF staff members. This happened recently outside a Muridke brick factory to a BLLF leader I'll call Tariq. The fifty-odd kiln workers leaving the factory at the end of the workday scattered in all directions when they noticed Tariq lingering outside the factory gate, pamphlets in hand. One soot-covered girl of eight, left behind in the confusion, burst into tears when Tariq asked if she needed help. Between sobs the girl pleaded, "Please, sir, I have nothing to tell you. Please let me go."

Tariq did, albeit reluctantly. He has witnessed scenes like this countless times; they happen more and more often. If they discourage him (how could they not?), he takes care not to let anyone know. He describes his work as "an outgrowth of my patriotism." "What we do is meant not to shame Pakistan before the world but to create a Pakistan that respects the rights of all its peoples and encourages human potential." Tariq is a tall, pensive thirty-nine-year-old, an artist by training and by temperament. He traces his interest in child labor to an afternoon five years ago when an anti-slavery activist entered his graphic-design studio in need of a brochure for his struggling organization. "Ehsan Ulla Khan had little money to spare, and he intimated that he'd rather not pay at all for the design work,"Tariq told me. "I was just starting out in business and had no interest in politics or human rights. But I was moved by his photos of the children and agreed to do the work." Within six months Tariq was preparing all of the BLLF's documents; within a year he was overseeing its operations. Today he is its factotum: equal parts tactician, recruiter, instructor, fundraiser, morale-booster.

Some days he is also part spy. In addition to their assigned duties, the BLLF's 600 staff members are encouraged to spend their free time scrounging for leads on factory owners who are especially abusive to children. All rumors are passed on to the BLLF's Lahore headquarters. Tariq does what he can to substantiate the worst of them, usually by touring the factories. It's a duty he dislikes. For one thing, it's exhausting: there are too many leads, too many rumors to verify. For another, it's dangerous: he's had numerous clashes with publicity-shy employers and their thugs. He prefers to travel alone, reasoning that one man is less conspicuous and less of a threat than is a group. And despite his reservations he is adept at subterfuge, at gaining entry to factories by masquerading as a laborer, a wholesaler, an exporter. "I do not misrepresent myself," he says. "But if a foreman mistakes me for a businessman or a wholesaler, I don't correct him."

His first stop one day last summer was a carpet workshop in a village twenty-four miles from Lahore. The village amounted to thirty brick huts, and the workshop was small in proportion—about the size of a subway car, and about as appealing. The long, narrow room contained a dozen upright looms. On each rough-hewn workbench between the looms squatted a carpet weaver. The room was dark and airless. Such light as there was came from a single ceiling fixture, two of its four bulbs burned out. A thermometer read 105 degrees, and the mud walls were hot to the touch. A window promised some relief, but it was closed against fabric-eating insects.

Tariq entered quietly, in slacks, shirt, and patent-leather loafers. This outfit is uncommon in the provinces; he hoped it marked him as a person with Western tastes, and his vehicle, a Toyota Land Cruiser (donated to the BLLF by UNICEF), which he had parked conspicuously close to the entrance, marked him as a man of means—a buyer, a broker, an exporter. The weavers smiled at him, and a few bowed, but no one dared speak to him. Tariq took advantage of their reverence—and the master's absence—by circling the room, noting its conditions. After two circuits he began guessing the ages of the young weavers: "Are you twelve?" The boy nodded. Tariq pointed to the next. "Fourteen?" Another nod and a smile. "Ten?" This time the nod was shy, and someone mentioned that the day before had been the boy's birthday. Tariq wished him health and happiness.

Of the twelve weavers, five were eleven to fourteen, and four were under ten. The two youngest were brothers named Akbar and Ashraf, aged eight and nine. They had been bonded to the carpet master at age five, and now worked six days a week at the shop. Their workday started at 6:00 A.M. and ended at 8:00 P.M., except, they said, when the master was behind on his quotas and forced them to work around the clock. They were small, thin, malnourished, their spines curved from lack of exercise and from squatting before the loom. Their hands were covered with calluses and scars, their fingers gnarled from repetitive work. Their breathing was labored, suggestive of tuberculosis. Collectively these ailments, which pathologists call captive-child syndrome, kill half of Pakistan's working children by age twelve.

Tariq and I watched Akbar in silence for some time. A hand-knotted carpet is made by tying short lengths of fine colored thread to a lattice of heavier white threads. The process is labor-intensive and tedious: a single four-by-six-foot carpet contains well over a million knots and takes an experienced weaver four to six months to complete. The finest, most intricate carpets have the highest density of knots. The smaller the knot, the more knots the weaver can cram into his lattice and the more valuable the finished carpet. Small knots are, of course, made most easily by small hands. Each carpet Akbar completed would retail in the United States for about $2,000—more than the boy would earn in ten years.

Observing a child carpet weaver at work generates in an American alternating currents of admiration and anger. At one moment the boy seems a prodigy, his carpet a lesson in geometry and colors. His patience is remarkable; his artistry seems effortless and of the highest order—comparable to, say, that of a great medieval tapestry master. The next moment he fumbles with his scissors, and one notices a welt on his forearm. Suddenly the monotony of tying thousands of threads each hour seems like torture of the worst sort—like a death sentence, which in a way it is.

After ten minutes Tariq knelt by Akbar's side and said softly, "You're very good at this. The master must be quite pleased with you." The boy shook his head and grimaced. "The master says I am slow and clumsy."

Tariq placed a sympathetic hand on the boy's shoulder. "Have you been punished for poor work?"he asked. The boy shrugged and tied a red knot. Tariq repeated the question. This time the boy tied a dozen knots before answering him, in a conspiratorial whisper. "The master screams at us all the time, and sometimes he beats us," he said. "He is less severe with the younger boys. We're slapped often. Once or twice he lashed us with a cane. I was beaten ten days ago, after I made many errors of color in a carpet. He struck me with his fist quite hard on the face." By way of corroborating this, Akbar lifted a forelock, revealing a multicolored bruise on his right temple. Evidently the master did not consider the blow sufficient punishment: "I was fined one thousand rupees and made to correct the errors by working two days straight." The fine was added to Akbar's debt, and would extend his "apprenticeship" by several months.

"Do you like working here?"

"Oh, no, sir, staying here longer fills me with dread. I know I must learn a trade. But my parents are so far away, and all my friends are in school. My brother and I would like to be with our family. We'd like to play with our friends. This is not the way children should live."

Tariq listened to this outpouring without emotion. He has cultivated what he calls a surgeon's insensitivity to ravaged flesh, "because otherwise my heart would break ten times a day." Neither Akbar nor the others knew that child labor was illegal, that they were free to leave the workshop whenever they wished.

Tariq left the factory and, on a whim, headed for the district police headquarters. As a rule BLLF members are closely observant of legal procedure, lest they be accused of subversive activity. The organization's legal advisers typically spend weeks drafting a formal complaint against a factory, based on members' espionage, before they register it with a high-court magistrate. Right now, however, Tariq was as interested in testing the responsiveness of the police as in penalizing the factory owner.

The nearest police station is a colonial relic on the Lahore road in Muridke. Tariq was caught up in the usual bureaucratic chaos on entering. The foyer was packed with police officers, soldiers, crime victims, and criminals, half of them shouting, the other half covering their ears against the noise. Every now and then the soldiers tried to impose order on the crowd, but with tattered uniforms and clipless rifles their authority went only so far. Familiar with such outposts, Tariq took his place in a line and forty minutes later was face-to-face with the district sergeant. It was ten in the morning. The sergeant had been at his post for two hours, but it could have been 200 for the way he looked. Tariq told him about the conditions in the workshop, about the children. The sergeant was perplexed. "Is this a crime?" he asked. "No one has ever complained before. What do you want us to do about it?" Tariq suggested sending officers to investigate, along with a medical-services crew for the children.

The sergeant left to consult his superior. Two minutes later he returned with the superintendent, a gracious, mustachioed man of fifty. "We are not unsympathetic to your complaint," the superintendent informed Tariq. "But the place you describe is registered as a home enterprise. It is run by a small landowner, and the workers are his immediate family. Family businesses are exempt from the labor laws. This enterprise is not illegal." The superintendent opened a binder and showed Tariq the workshop's registration certificate. Tariq attempted to correct him, but the superintendent said, "What you say may or may not be true. Unfortunately, our jurisdiction does not include child labor. I have no authority to investigate a private workplace. I have no evidence that the children are working there against their will or that their lives are in jeopardy. The mechanism for doing what you ask simply does not exist here."

Tariq was not disappointed, nor was he surprised. He expected no better, and was even pleased that he had rated an audience with the superintendent. Corruption is pervasive in the justice system: for a small consideration the police will look the other way when employers misuse their workers. In several districts the police are notorious for colluding with employers—supplying factories with children who have been abducted from itinerant poor families, orphanages, schools. Not long ago a boy of nine escaped from an abusive landowner and sought help from a police sergeant at this very station. The boy claimed that he had been held captive and tortured; he begged the police to return him to his parents. Instead the sergeant ordered the "fugitive" returned in shackles to the landowner. The sergeant later made the landowner a gift of the shackles, suggesting that they be used on other disruptive children.

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