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Bonded Labour and Minorities in Pakistan

By HRFP and GHRD
Bonded labour is a modern form of slavery. A person is enslaved as a bonded labourer due to debt bondage when his or her labour is acquired as a way of paying certain loan. Quite often bonded labourers are subjected to physical and sexual violence. They live under various forms of surveillance (at times through armed guards). The ILO Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery (1956) defines debt bondage as:
“the status or condition arising from a pledge by a debtor of his personal services or those of a person under his control as security for a debt, if the value of those services as reasonably assessed is not applied towards the liquidation of the debt or the length and nature of those services are not respectively limited and defined” (ILO, 1956:1).
In South Asia, especially in Pakistan, bonded labour is widespread in agriculture, brick kiln, home base textiles, domestic work, practices as beggars (beggar is a traditional form of forced labour and some are forced to do so because of poverty), carpet industries, mining, human trafficking and tanning. According to the Constitution of Pakistan, debt bondage is prohibited by the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act 1992. Pakistan has also ratified ILO Convention 29 on bonded labour. A 2018 Global Slavery Index showed that 3,186,000 (about 3.2 million) Pakistani’s were recorded as bonded labourers. Pakistan ranks in the 8th position of the global slavery index.
Many of the bonded labour occupations are hazardous or unsafe. The bonded labourers are often exposed to unhygienic circumstances due to which they could suffer a lot of diseases. Mine labours, factory labours and brick kiln labour cause air pollution, which makes that labourers breath in the bad atmosphere and are more likely to suffer from critical lung diseases and many other health issues. Also, brick kiln and agricultural labour have a heavy physical nature and can cause permanent disability or even death. Furthermore, in all bonded labour forms, verbal and physical abuse is common. Additional to sexual harassment and abuse for women. All these occupational hazards in bonded labour leads to a very heavy burden of disease.
Bonded labour affects Pakistan’s minorities more severely. These socially excluded groups, migrants and religious minorities experience a double burden; by being subjected to bonded labour and as being a minority. This combination makes a person vulnerable for exploitation on many fronts. In addition, discrimination, social and political exclusion make the problem of bonded labour even more complex. Especially, Christians, Hindus and some other small religious groups in Pakistan are working in bonded labour. Also, people who are already depressed and are not able to stand against their “owners” are more vulnerable to bonded labour.
The common pattern used to bond labours are by providing loans on higher rates of interest to these vulnerable groups. In return they have to work for the person from whom they have received the loan on an unconditional basis. Because the workers receive a very low income,they will never able to return back that amounts as loans they got. Sometimes, the loans also include control over workers’ life-choices including marriage or education.So, the workers get trapped in a cycle of unreplaceable debt and forced labour. They have no choice than to keep working in the hazardous occupations, are not allowed to leave and get treated badly if they resist to work or perform poorly. Even currently, withthe instruction of law enforcement departments to stay at homes due to risk of infection of Covid-19 (Corona Virus), these bonded labours are still not allowed to go to their homes because most of their work still continues on their “owners” orders. When these bonded labourers ask about their rights from the persons who have given them loans, they demand their loan back.
The Government of Pakistan claims they are doing efforts to stop bonded labour in their country. By adopting some legislations in the past, they have tried to make a change. The Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act 1992 was established to eliminate the slavery and forced labours. The governments have been claiming that bonded labour was eliminated by means of this law, but on the ground, the implementation was lacking. So, practically nothing has changed in the lives of the minorities working in bonded labour.
Thus, it is crucial to help the Pakistani minorities subjected to bonded labour. They can be helped in various ways; by paying their bondage money, providing them human development skills, vocational training and by starting a business for them and their families. Children of these labours can and should be given education. To improve health status, medical assistance and a balanced diet is needed.