Brick making is one of the most ancient practices in the world and was utilized by ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians for crafting various structures. While the utilization of bricks has steadily evolved over the years, the production of bricks in developing countries has remained the same. Bricks are still prepared, molded, dried and baked in a fiery kiln by hand. The brick kiln industry is tedious, mundane and dangerous work that is often executed by workers with little to no education. Pakistan is one of the largest producers of bricks in the world, with an estimated annual production total of over 11 billion bricks.
Recently, stories of unimaginable cruelty have swept through various social media channels about the daily hardships these Pakistani brick laborers face. Their stories of adversity have unfurled, like a corpse flower, to reveal the stifling wretchedness of bonded labor. With an estimated 10-12 million people in bonded labor in Pakistan out of a population of 191 million, there is an urgent need to eradicate the practice from the brick kiln sector.
This exploitative labor epidemic has been spurred in part by Pakistan’s floundering economy and lack of government aid. The poor economic situation in Pakistan has narrowed financial prospects for many desperate workers, especially those who lack a formal education. With over 20,000 brick kilns in operation, owners manipulate and tempt workers into accepting fiscal advancements in exchange for work. In Pakistan, debt-bondage is commonly referred to as Peshgi – an (advance) system. Millions of uneducated individuals hastily accept these alluring loans to pay for daunting medical bills or food for their family. Falsely veiled as a contract, a Peshgi easily manifests into a form of slavery because the bond is indentured, unwritten, and binds workers to the owners for little to no pay.
High interest rates for housing and food are unjustly affixed onto the initial Peshgi, causing the original debt to swell. This intense debt ballooning cripples workers financially, making them virtual prisoners of the kiln owner and subject to physical, economic and social exploitation. The burden of debt is so severe that it is often passed down from generation to generation, causing children to abandon their chances of education or freedom. According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, there are anywhere from 250,000 to five million child laborers in the brick industry.
Despite the thousands of red bricks scattered wildly around her, Syeda Ghulam Fatima coolly poses for the camera with a steady stare. Draped in a brilliant sea of yellow, her luminous presence is sharply contrasted by the bare landscape of the brick kilns. Fatima has become an international “canary in the coal mine” by bringing attention to the corrupt bonded labor practices in Pakistan. Fatima’s stories became globally illuminated when photographer Brandon Stanton recently featured her in his popular photo-blog “Humans of New York”. Her personal anecdotes of resilience and physically coming between laborers and kiln owners captivated millions. Fatima has been electrocuted, tortured, beaten and shot for her activism but her blazing determination remains undiminished by the threat of death.
Ghulam’s organization, Bonded Labor Liberation Front (BFFL), acts a sanctuary for brick kiln workers who seek security, guidance and legal aid. The vision for BLLF is to expunge bonded labor from Pakistan and establish education centers and minimum wage laws for all workers. Her poignant testimonies, along with other kiln workers were posted on various social media channels with a link to donate to BLLF. Within 72 hours, supporters raised over $2 million to join the fight against bonded labor. The donations were met with exuberant thanks from Fatima and a promise to honor what she was graciously given by building real freedom in Pakistan.
While the positive actions that transpired to assist the kiln workers exemplify the immense power of collective awareness, the quest for universal justice in Pakistan will still be arduous. Pakistan outlawed bonded labor in 1992 but evidently, the wealthy brick kiln owners are more powerful than provincial legislature. Since 90% of all brick kilns are discreetly tucked away in rural areas where legal enforcement is insubstantial, bonded labor is able to thrive in the shade of corruption and illegality. In Pakistan, bonded labor can also be seen in agriculture, carpet weaving, shoemaking, fisheries, power looms, stone crushing and industrial units. While the number of existing exploitative practices is disheartening, the recent actions that transpired after hearing the workers’ testimonies exemplify the immense power of collective awareness. Fatima was recently awarded the Clinton Global Citizen award for her leadership in civil society. To learn more about bonded labor and ways that you can help, please click here to visit Fatima’s website.