Entire families, parents and children, who work with a pay of 7 euros for every 1000 bricks produced. But poverty, rain, winter and the pandemic have closed down factories. To survive, they take out loans with their bosses, who then force a family to work for generations to repay the debt. Often entire family units are sold on to other masters, along with the debt. Being part of the Christian minority also means more discrimination.
Faisalabad (AsiaNews) – A week ago, AsiaNews has launched the campaign "Pakistan: Help Brick Factory Jobless", to help 45 Christian families, hungry, indebted, without clothes for the winter. With a gift of 15 euros you can offer a family a package of food for 15 days. The AsiaNews correspondent met one of these families. Their story is one of modern slavery born of abysmal poverty and often because of their Christian faith.
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Babar Masih is a 50-year-old father of four children (three daughters and a son). His very poor family resides in a hut given to them by the owner of the brick factory in Kamalpur (or Malikpur), near Faisalabad. To feed the family, Babar, his daughters and his wife work on making bricks. The Pakistani government has set a piecework wage: 1296 rupees (about 7 euros) per 1000 bricks produced; but Babar's family is paid with only 800 rupees (4 euros): the rest is used to repay the debt they have contracted with the factory owner.
In 2017, Babar and his eldest daughter were trapped by a Muslim brick factory owner, who falsely accused them of theft. Because of these false accusations, they both ended up in prison. Thanks to the involvement of the Nazareth Committee and the Justice and Peace Commission, they were able to get a lawyer and secure bail. The trial is still ongoing and they hope to be declared innocent soon.
But in the meantime, in order for the family to live, they had to ask for a loan from their current owner. In 2016, the eldest daughter, Mehwish, fell ill with appendicitis. Medical expenses were partly covered by the Nazareth Committee, partly by loans. To date, their debt has reached the figure of 285,000 rupees (1,460 euros).
Last year, Mehwish got married. But Babar could not give her any dowry and she got married to another brick worker. In 2020 they faced even more problems due to the pandemic. By order of the government, the factories remained closed and they were once again forced to ask for a loan from their owner. In fact, they cannot find another job or go somewhere else until they have paid their master's debt: it is a modern form of slavery.
Ruqiya Bibi, 48, Babar Masih's wife, tells AsiaNews about other forms of discrimination. Most of the workers in the brick factories are not registered in the official government database (Nadra) and therefore have no identity card. Without it, it is not possible to have health coverage or other social assistance. "There are 45 families who work in our factory, but there is not even a toilet in our homes. For our needs we have to go to the fields. During the pandemic, the government distributed food parcels among the workers, but to us, who are of the Christian minority, the boss and his collaborators have not given us anything ”.
In the video that is attached to this article, she says: “I've been working on making bricks since I was little. I have had to face many difficulties. During the Covid-19 pandemic, the owners of the factory did not even give us a sanitary mask or other hygienic safety equipment. When the food packages were distributed, they only gave them to Muslims. We Christians have received nothing: we had to go to the shops to get food on credit, or ask for a loan from our master. We are also discriminated against because of our faith”.
“Almost all families - Babar says - ask for loans from their masters, and since they cannot repay them, they remain to work for him for several generations. Sometimes, another brick factory owner pays the debt and takes us to work in his factory, just like the slaves. It is impossible for us to send our children to school because the whole family has to work on producing bricks in order to keep going, trying to pay off debts. But it is almost impossible because when there is rain, in winter, or now with the pandemic, factories are closed. And so we still have to go into debt and the situation always remains the same”.
“We are grateful to all those friends who are helping us and who, under this pandemic, provide food and some other needs for us. To date, a week before Christmas, we can't even give our children new, warm, heavy clothes to face this cold winter. We need the help of God's people and your prayers".