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
The Death of Iqbal Masih

In 1992 Pakistani carpet exports fell for the first time in two decades. The fall was slight in absolute terms—no more than three or four percentage points—but it indicated that Western consumers were shying away from luxury goods made by Third World children. Carpet makers' fears were confirmed when in 1993 and 1994 sales fell sharply in several of the largest markets for Pakistani exports. Since carpets were an important source of foreign currency, the decline sent shock waves throughout the Pakistani economy. At a 1993 conference, officials of the Pakistan Carpet Manufacturers and Exporters Association blamed the decline on "subversive domestic organizations which are conducting misleading and false international media campaigns abroad about the use of child labor in our manufacturing processes." The conference concluded on an optimistic note: "The memory of Western consumers is brief and our enemies' meager resources cannot sustain their destructive campaign for much longer."

Whatever hopes the carpet makers had for a reversal of their misfortunes were dashed in 1994, when human-rights organizations around the world acclaimed a twelve-year-old former slave named Iqbal Masih for his crusade against child labor. A small, sickly boy, Iqbal had been bonded at age four to a village carpet maker. He spent much of the next six years chained to a loom, which he worked fourteen hours a day, six days a week. He was fed just enough to keep him functioning, and was beaten more often than the other children at the workshop, because, unlike them, he defied the master time and again, refusing to work and on occasion attempting to escape. At ten he slipped his chains and sought the help of the BLLF, which secured him his freedom and a place in a primary school.

Frail as he was, Iqbal was a child of rare gifts, possessed of an intellectual maturity beyond his years and a precocious sense of justice. He applied these gifts to the anti-slavery movement, and achieved results that would be impressive for a Nobel laureate, let alone a schoolboy. By his twelfth birthday he had helped to liberate 3,000 children from bondage at textile and brick factories, tanneries, steelworks—industries at the heart of the Pakistani economy. He was subsequently honored by the International Labor Organization, in Sweden; by Reebok, which presented him with its prestigious Human Rights Youth in Action Award (for "his courage and ingenuity in righting a centuries-old wrong") in Boston in December of 1994; and by ABC News, which featured him as its Person of the Week. He used his unlikely celebrity status to remind consumers that "the world's two hundred million enslaved children are your responsibility." Subsequent to his travels millions of people in the United States and Europe searched their souls and decided that they could do without products of doubtful origin from Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh.

Iqbal attained a corresponding notoriety in Pakistan, particularly among the politicians and industrialists whose feudal practices he opposed. They responded with smear campaigns and the occasional threat of violence. Iqbal dismissed these threats, telling his friends that they encouraged him to work harder. He reasoned that grown men would harm a child only as a last resort, when their own position proved vulnerable.

On the evening of April 16, 1995, Easter Sunday, Iqbal Masih was shot dead while visiting relatives in a rural village. Immediately afterward Ehsan Ulla Khan declared that the slain youth was the victim of "a mafia conspiracy." In the days that followed, Khan embellished his conspiracy theory for anyone willing to listen. "I emphatically say that the carpet mafia is responsible for this brutal killing . . . Iqbal has become a symbol of our struggle against slavery and was not afraid to expose the inhuman practices prevailing in the carpet industry. I have no doubt that the police are also a part of the conspiracy." However, Khan did not support his fulminations with evidence. "I do not rely on evidence," he told his critics. "I have my instinct. How else do you explain how, in a village where no murder has occurred for a decade, the one child who poses a threat to the carpet owners is gunned down? Coincidence is never so cruel." To the claim of the local police that Iqbal's murder was an isolated incident Khan retorts, "The evidence can be found if the police could be bothered to look." The killing remains unsolved.

Eight hundred mourners crowded into the Muridke cemetery for Iqbal's funeral. A week later 3,000 protesters, half of them under twelve, marched through the streets of Lahore demanding an end to child labor. A few days after the funeral Khan left Pakistan to consult with children's-rights activists in Europe. There he repeated his accusations to great effect at conferences, on television, before lawmakers. Iqbal was proclaimed a "martyr for the cause of bonded labor"; his murder became a cause célèbre among the intelligentsia. Khan called upon the Human Rights Commission of the United Nations to ban the import and sale of all products made by children, especially carpets. "I appeal to importers and consumers: say no and only no to child-made carpets," he said. "This is the last message of Iqbal. It would be an insult to his blood and memory if people continue to buy child-made products in any part of the world."

Western consumers have responded to Khan's plea. Sales of imported carpets have fallen precipitously in recent months. Bowing to public pressure, importers in the United States, Sweden, Italy, Britain, France, and Germany by last June had canceled carpet orders collectively valued at $10 million. At the same time, human-rights groups and individual sympathizers have donated large sums to support and expand BLLF operations. Ironically, Iqbal's death opened doors and purses that were previously closed to Khan.

Westerners, who have seen economic weapons used to achieve social reforms, might expect canceled orders to result in negotiation and, with luck, accommodation between industrialists and activists. Pakistan's industrialists, however, have chosen the questionable tactic of denying the existence of bonded labor in their factories. Shahid Rashid Butt, the president of the Islamabad Carpet Exporters Association, told his colleagues, "Our industry is the victim of enemy agents who spread lies and fictions around the world that bonded labor and child labor are utilized in the production of hand-knotted carpets. They are not and have never been." He condemned the BLLF and its allies as Jewish and Indian enemies who had launched a systematic campaign to damage the reputation of Pakistan's carpet industry for their own profit. His remarks were enthusiastically endorsed by the Pakistan Carpet Manufacturers and Exporters Association and echoed in the National Assembly.

"These charges flew in the face not just of reason but also of an extraordinary amount of evidence," says I. A. Rehman, the director of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. "Anywhere else they would have been laughed at and dismissed. Here they were accepted as fact and acted on." At the urging of politicians and industrialists, Javed Mahmood, the assistant director of Pakistan's Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), last May launched an inquiry into the BLLF on the strength of information he had received from highly placed sources suggesting that the organization was supported by "Pakistan's enemies."He later said, "I consider the information credible and will do all I can to protect our country's commercial interests from unscrupulous enemies." At the same time, Pakistan's leading newspapers began running "exposés" of abolitionist leaders, the nicest of which characterized Ehsan Ulla Khan as a philandering bigamist with "indisputable ties to Jewish and Indian agencies hostile to Pakistan." The publishers of these newspapers are suspected of having large financial interests in industries employing child labor.

The FIA is a secret police force, and one of its best-kept secrets is whom it works for. Nominally an organ of the state, it is not above accepting freelance assignments from prominent individuals and commercial groups. The extent of its extralegal activities is anyone's guess, but a highly respected human-rights investigator believes that "there is close cooperation between carpet interests, feudal lords, segments of the police force, and the administration—district commissioners, the courts, and government officials. Financially resourceful drug barons are also a part of the scene." Whoever the client, the FIA provides an assortment of services straight out of the KGB handbook: wiretaps, tails, searches, arrests, harassment, and varying degrees of corporal punishment.

These services were very much in evidence on a Thursday afternoon in late June, when the FIA raided the BLLF's Lahore headquarters. The detail consisted of ten men, all in plain clothes, who scrambled up four flights of stairs to the tiny office in no time flat. These were not ordinary policemen; this was not the usual surprise "inspection" (read "intimidation") to which all nongovernment organizations are periodically subjected. These were professional agents, lithe and expert, commanded by a severe officer in a freshly pressed safari suit. After lining the BLLF workers up against a wall, he ordered his troops to "confiscate anything that may incriminate them." The agents took a liberal view of "incriminate," and packed up computers, filing cabinets, fax machines, photocopiers, telephones, stationery, posters, bicycles—and the cashbox containing the monthly payroll. Their depredations were supervised by a small man who was distinctly not a policeman. He represented, it turned out, the Pakistan Carpet Manufacturers and Exporters Association. His purpose, he said, was "to protect the interests of legitimate businessmen." Every so often he consulted with the commander.

When one BLLF worker tried to protest, an agent threw her against a wall and held a rifle butt inches from her face. When another worker demanded to see a search warrant, the commander informed her that none was necessary, because "we are acting to prevent terrorism." The association representative nodded in agreement.

Fifteen minutes later the detail was gone, along with the office equipment and furnishings. All that remained was a heap of broken furniture, a workers'-rights poster, and a BLLF flag dangling out an open window. Several staff workers had been taken away as well, to an FIA holding center, where they were interrogated for three days.

Two days later another FIA detail raided the BLLF's "Freedom Campus" training facility in Lahore, along with several of its primary schools around the country. Once again the agents were undiscriminating. They seized everything movable ("items used to obstruct valid commercial interests") and mistreated the staff without respect for position or age. Teachers, drivers, secretaries, and peasant families seeking refuge from violent employers were interrogated along with administrators, advocates, attorneys, and fundraisers.

After an earlier raid on BLLF headquarters Fatima Ghulam, the director of the BLLF's women's-education program, was held for two days. "An officer promised to release me immediately if I agreed to inform against Ehsan Ulla Khan and some of the others," Ghulam says. "He wanted me to testify that Khan is a subversive, an enemy agent, and that the BLLF receives money from foreign governments. He said he had tapped my telephone conversations and had recordings of me discussing treasonable acts. If I wanted to avoid prosecution, I would have to cooperate with the FIA. I refused, and he kept me without food or water. When I wouldn't speak to him the next day, he slapped me and dragged me around the room."

Not to be outdone, the Pakistani press stepped up its campaign against the BLLF. Last summer a number of newspapers whose editorial pages conceded that they were "troubled by the carpet export crisis" reported the following "facts": Khan himself had murdered Iqbal Masih to win sympathy for the BLLF; Khan had misappropriated BLLF funds to support his own decadent lifestyle; Khan routinely used BLLF schoolchildren as sex partners and house slaves; Iqbal Masih was a twenty-one-year-old midget whom Khan paid to masquerade as a carpet child; the BLLF was an outpost of India's intelligence agency; Khan was an Indian agent working to disgrace the Pakistani carpet trade. These same papers also "revealed" that carpet workers enjoy a higher standard of living than the average citizen, along with better working conditions. "The few children working on carpets," one editorial assured its readers, "do so after school, in their own homes, under the supervision of loving parents."

In the wake of these attacks BLLF operations—child-welfare programs, schools, training and education programs—nearly shut down for lack of funds and staff. Membership has suffered, and many of the legal advisers and support staff, fearing reprisals, have fallen away. Those who remain are subject to almost constant harassment: the fortunate ones have their telephones tapped; the less fortunate are shadowed around the clock. At the same time, the courts have ignored their complaints about child labor and abusive treatment by employers.

Just in case the intention of the Federal Investigation Agency was unclear, Assistant Director Mahmood in early June charged Ehsan Ulla Khan, who was still abroad, and a BLLF strategist named Zafaryab Ahmad with sedition and economic treason, capital offenses punishable by death. According to Mahmood, "The accused men conspired with the Indian espionage agency to exploit the murder of Iqbal Masih . . . causing a recurring huge financial loss to Pakistan's business interests abroad and paving the way for India to wage economic warfare against Pakistan." Ahmad was arrested and taken to a Lahore jail, where, after repudiating the charges (he called them "foolish and absurd"), he was denied bail. The FIA has since refused to provide BLLF attorneys with evidence supporting the charges, although Mahmood assures them that it consists of "videotapes and recordings of telephone conversations that amount to firm proof." Mahmood has vowed to arrest Khan "the very moment he returns to Pakistan, the moment his aircraft touches down."

Ehsan Ulla Khan remains in Europe, an unhappy exile. "They will jail me if I return to Pakistan," he told me shortly after he left his country. "Our attorneys tell me I am of greater use to the BLLF here, speaking out against the authorities, than I would be inside a Lahore cell. I fear for my people. The police have harassed many of them, and so many more have left us out of fear. We are demoralized. We cannot pay our bills and our staff. Our schools may close and our thousands of students may end up in the very factories we saved them from. Our offices and homes are under surveillance. Our telephones are tapped. We are fighting for our survival. If the attacks do not stop soon, it is possible that the BLLF will perish. That would be tragic. What will become of the children of Pakistan?"

Presented by

Saving the Bees

Honeybees contribute more than $15 billion to the U.S. economy. A short documentary considers how desperate beekeepers are trying to keep their hives alive.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.

Video

Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.

Video

The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.

Video

Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.

Video

Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Global

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In