Lahore University of Management Sciences

Set at liberty... Is it enough?

November 23, 2011

Share this page on Facebook

Contributed by: Samaa Mufti

Sanghar, July 11, 2008: After a successful raid, Jhole police freed 53 haris who were working as bonded labourers at the lands of Ali Ghulam Mari (Dawn Newspaper).

Peshawar, September 12, 2009: A local court on Saturday set free 20 bonded labourers, including women and children, recovered from a brick kiln in the Urmer area (Dawn Newspaper).

Mirpurkhas, March 20, 2010: About 82 bonded labourers have been freed from the illegal captivity of three landlords, on the order of district and session judges of Mirpurkhas during the last 24 hours (Dawn Newspaper).

Badin, October 15, 2011: Police have recovered 41 bonded labourers including 27 children from the private jail of an influential feudal on the orders of Badin Court (Express Tribune).

Every year hundreds of labourers held in bondage are freed from the shackles of forced labour, inhumane treatment, poverty and immense misery. The bonded labour system in Pakistan, inherited before the time of colonisation, presents a fierce and distressing reality that continues to devastate the lives of 1.7 million Pakistanis (Survey by International Labour Organization). Strengthened by the presence of a strong feudal structure, the practice of forced labour based on an advance (peshgi) renders the debtor and his family to provide service to the creditor for the rest of their life, even generation after generation. Human rights activists, lawyers, NGOs and international organisations are working relentlessly to liberate bonded labourers from the webs of exploitation and cruelty. But is it enough to set them free?

‘Set at liberty! Is it enough?’, a report written by Dr. Ali Qazalbash, Head of Law and Policy Department , LUMS MGSHSS in collaboration with Mehergarh and Trocaire analyses the historical and political trends that resisted various labour reforms over the last 64 years, and reinforced conditions of bonded labour. Dr. Qazalbash includes actual bonded labour cases in the report along with their decisions given by the court. The cases mentioned have one thing in common: the petitioners are set free without inflicting any punishment on the violators. Pakistan’s justice system has not been successful in using the Bonded Labour Abolition Act 1992, formed in accordance to the Darshan Masih case by the Supreme Court, to charge the violators of this brutal crime. Instead emphasis is laid on provisions like habeas corpus that call only for the detainment of bonded labourers. The question remains, if laws on bonded labour were passed by the Supreme Court in 1992 and 2001 and by the Federal Shariat Court in 2006, then why are there gaps in its implementation? The answer, according to Dr. Qazalbash, lies partly in our unstable political structure and partly in the inabilities of the justice system. The resistance from feudal leadership, greater focus on amendments in the law rather than its implementation, change in the third tier of governance in local bodies and lack of seriousness of the administration to precede the bonded labour cases beyond liberty are some of the significant reasons for non implementation. 

Moreover, the report highlights the heinous human rights violation occurring in brick kilns (bhattas), farms, mining areas and carpet factories of interior Sindh and Punjab. Besides the deplorable conditions of living, women are sexually harassed, children are denied any form of education and men are subjected to inexorable punishments. Dr. Qazalbash proposes amendments in the 1992 act specifically in the enhancement of punishment and fine for the violators, protection of women and children and existence of a formal contract between the employer and employee to clearly stipulate the conditions of work. He recommends that in order to eradicate bonded labour from its roots a strict compliance to the 1992 act is significant, coupled with a greater role of the civil society and the NGOs and a strict federal government check on provincial governments in implementing the law. On a global level, international donors and United States should use leverage of economic aid to encourage Pakistan to take steps in abolishing the bonded labour system. 

The report’s focus on going beyond the liberty of bonded labourers towards a system of sanctioning the violators has made it unique and popular among students, lawyers and activists.