Bonded labor — Modern day slavery in Pakistan

We recently celebrated 70 years of freedom and just as many years of slavery entrenched within our system. We have had many others who have endeavored to remind us of the existence of slavery in Pakistan.

Pakistan, a country with an estimated population of 2.3 million in bonded labor. The word slavery evokes images from history from when slaves were driven by their masters like cattle and treated worse than animals. With the passage of time, this evil tradition has died down but its remnants still linger in many dark corners of the civilized and uncivilized world. There are institutions and research groups that regularly study the phenomenon and sensitize the world towards the complete abolition of this abominable practice.

According to ILO, Forced labor is any type of work or kind of service in which someone engages involuntarily and under some implied coercion a manifest threat of a penalty or oppressive measure. Bonded labor is prevalent in agriculture sector, brick kilns, domestic work and begging.

Bonded labor has been outlawed in Pakistan and most other affected countries in line with UN conventions on human rights. However, according to the 2014 Global Slavery Index, 2,058,200 people are enslaved in Pakistan. The WFF Index places Pakistan at third position in a list of 167 countries where the problem of human slavery is most severe. After India and China, Pakistan is considered to have the largest number of people living in conditions that can be described as belonging to modern-day slavery. It is reported that the combined number of such people found in India, Pakistan and Thailand are estimated to equal almost half of nearly 36 million people trapped in slavery globally.

The report accompanying the slavery index identifies debt bondage to be the most common factor creating conditions of slavery. It says: “The provinces of Punjab and Sindh are hotspots of bonded labor, which is mainly found in the brick making, agriculture and carpet weaving industries. While official statistics are not available, recently it was estimated that the brick kiln industry employs around 4.5 million people across the country.” Bonded labor, also called debt bondage, is defined as a form of slavery by the Abolition of Forced Labor Commission 1957 and a form of forced labor under the International Labor Organization (ILO) Forced Labor Convention 1930.

A person becomes a bonded laborer when he or she takes or is tricked into taking a loan. Subsequently, the person is forced to work long hours for little or no pay often for seven days a week, in order to repay the debt. Sometimes the debt is never repaid and simply passes from one generation to the next. Intimidation and violence are used to prevent people escaping from this form of slavery.

Pakistan 3rd in child and forced labour: ILO

The United Nations estimates that there are millions enslaved as bonded laborers in Pakistan. Ironically, these people live in a country that has several laws specifically outlawing bonded labor but none of them of them are enforced. Some civil society organizations estimated that eight million children are kept as bonded labor in Pakistan but these figures are outdated and no recent figures are available to determine the number of children who are working as bonded labor. However, the ILO estimates a minimum of 11.7 million people forced into bonded labor in the Asia-Pacific region while over one million men, women and children are employed as bonded laborers in brick kilns. Most of them are in debt bondage. The phenomenon of bonded labor is very common in the brick kiln sector, in all the provinces of Pakistan, with a majority of brick kilns located in Punjab. The workers in brick-kilns live and work in crowded conditions, with little or no access to basic nutrition, clean water and general hygiene. They are also exposed to pollutants, dust and disease.

Pakistan has ratified a number of international covenants and conventions that proscribe slavery, forced labor and debt-bondage. The Bonded Labor System (Abolition) Act of 1992 was introduced with the avowed purpose of abolishing the bonded labor system, with a view of preventing the economic and physical exploitation of the labor class in the country and for matters connected to it. Moreover, the Constitution of Pakistan, in Article 14, explains the dignity of man as inviolable and states that all citizens are equal before law and are entitled to equal protection of the law under Article 25. Article 11(2), in order to uphold this spirit, prohibits all forms of bonded labor and trafficking in human beings. Article 11(1) further states that slavery is non-existent and forbidden, and that no law should permit or facilitate its introduction in Pakistan in any form. Article 9 of Pakistan’s Constitution is also relevant in that it states that no person can be deprived of liberty save in accordance with the law. Article 15, dealing with freedom of movement, gives every citizen the right to remain in, and subject to any reasonable restriction imposed by the law in the public interest, enter and move freely throughout Pakistan and to reside and settle anywhere. However, bonded labor in Pakistan is widespread.

A humanitarian crisis:

It is of view that the Bonded Labor System (Abolition) Act 1992 should be applied and amended further to penalize land lords maintaining bonded labor. Moreover, brick kiln workers should be recognized by law as workers and as citizens of Pakistan. Many brick kiln workers do not have legal documents such as identity cards and birth certificates. Without birth certificates their children cannot go to school because they cannot complete the admission documents and, when they grow up, they cannot get identity cards because, to get one, they need a birth certificate. And so the cycle continues.

Different stakeholders have to understand the size and scope of this problem, contributing factors and existing response so that more effective action can be taken to end such brutal forms of human exploitation.

In 2013, statistics put Pakistan among the top positions in the “Slavery’s List of Shame”. And of its population of 185.13 million people in 2014, the Global Slavery Index Report estimated that more than one per cent of people in Pakistan are enslaved. This is a conservative figure. The same report cites debt bondage as our most favored form of slavery, and the provinces of Punjab and Sindh as our “hotspots” of bonded labor. These beings without basic rights will likely be found in our brick kilns, carpet weaving and agriculture sectors.


It is quoted that over 2.3 million people are in bonded labor. The government has no current official statistics. It also does not have a plan on how to tackle this evil.

However, one should bear in mind that shackled in bonded labor, it is likely that the majority of parents may have pledged their entire families, including their children, to their de facto ‘owners’. Will these ‘owners’, who are reported to punish laborers in private jails and are not prosecuted by local authorities, be swayed by the possibility of district vigilance committees doing their job? Surely, a policy discussion on how to effectively rescue the millions enslaved is a crucial part of the conversation on Naya vs. Purana Pakistan.

If the government and its instruments are serious on the issue of tackling bonded labor, then they should start with enforcing the existing law. At the very least, this will send the right message and could serve as a deterrent.


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