03/08/2017, 18.10
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Former worker under house arrest in Lahore for asking fair wage

by Kamran Chaudhry

Muhammad Iqbal is suing his former employer who exploited him for little money. In Pakistan, 2.3 million people work in slave-like conditions. It is common practice to pay off parents’ debt with child labour. About 65 per cent of bonded labourers are Christian.

Lahore (AsiaNews) – Muhammad Iqbal works at a brick kiln, for little money, like many others. When he asked to be paid a fair wage, his employer first threatened him and then forced him to quit. As a result, he was put under virtual house arrest at his home in Lahore.

His life changed last year, when he took part in an awareness seminar, which gave him the strength to rebel. "For years I was paid 500 rupees (US$ 5,00) for making 1,000 bricks,” he told AsiaNews. “Even with the help of my children, I spent the whole day working in the mud. After attending an awareness seminar last year, I asked for the payment (962 rupees) set by the Punjab government."

His employer did not like it. "I started getting threats. The entrance to our colony was closed at dusk and workers of the kiln owner used to stand in front of our house. He objected to the education of my children. After a heated argument, I left the kiln".

Iqbal’s story was presented at a press conference held yesterday at the Lahore Press Club. He and three other workers from the kiln situated in Mominpura, a Lahore suburb, are suing the kiln owner. His children now go to school whilst Iqbal works as a day labourer at construction sites.

His story is like that of many others in some of the 10,000 brick kilns that operate in Punjab province.

According to the Bonded Labour Liberation Front Pakistan (BLLFP), 2.3 million bonded labourers – men, women. and children – work in these kilns. Pakistan is ranked third in the Global Slavery Index – with 2.13 million people living in bondage, behind only India and China.

The problem is widespread, especially in Punjab and Sindh, where modern forms of slavery exist. One of these is peshgi, a system of bonded money advance, whereby a family member borrows money from an employer who requires debt payment through the labour of a child.

In Punjab a series of labour laws punish in principle such coercive practices. They include the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act 1992, the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Rules 1995 and the Punjab Prohibition of Child Labour at Brick Kilns, signed last year to protect children.

Activists and groups complain however that these legislative and regulatory instruments are largely ignored. BLLFP programme manager Mahar Safdar Ali noted that "65 per cent of bonded labourers are Christian. Kiln owners prefer to hire non-Muslims, knowing that they are deprived of legal, educational and health opportunities. This neglected class [of people] is ideal for cheap labour."

Yesterday, the press conference also highlighted the case of three jailed Christian kiln workers who were tortured. Last October, Salim Masih, Farooq Masih and Asif Masih complained to police that their employer had underpaid. The latter reacted by accusing them of theft.

Last week, police in Pattoki, Kasur district, "seized them by force at their homes, but so far they have not been charged in court. Instead, they are under pressure to withdraw their complaint.”

“The owners of the brick kiln have strong links with the Labour and Justice Ministries. None of them has ever been punished".

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