Bonded labour

More than four million people, including children, work in almost 20,000 brick kilns across Pakistan to pay off family loans taken from business owners.

Yasmin has been working at this brick kiln for a year. Her husband is ill and they have no money for medicine. She has four children and is the only one working in the household.

"I came here because of problems, desperation, deaths, kids, and the household expenses. These people don’t pay me regularly. And it’s not enough even when they do."

In Pakistan, it’s illegal to employ someone who is under 16 years of age.

But almost 70 percent of bonded labourers in Pakistan are children, estimated to number over one million.

Because they are working all day, they don’t have access to education. Children often inherit their parents’ debts and became bonded as individuals for a long time. If the parents leave the kiln, the children are kept as hostages.

"My kids go to school but we’ll have to take them out because we need more help. We aren’t making the number of bricks required by the contractor. I need to have the kids help us out."
"No one from the government comes here. The previous government was busy making roads. Why didn’t they make laws helping poor people? They didn’t make any houses for us to live in either."

Illness of a loved one or the marriage of a sibling drive these people to take loans or cash advances. In return, they are told to work for the loaner to pay off the money.

Their debt keeps increasing because of high interest rates, low wages, deductions and forged entries in the record ledgers that they do not get to see. They, and future generations, are trapped, bound to this debt that keeps spiralling out of reach.

The Global Slavery Index estimates there were almost 25 million people trapped in forced labour in 2016.

Its 2018 report placed Pakistan eighth on the list, estimating the number to be at 3.1 million.

In Pakistan

Brick kilns:
More than 20,000

Brick kiln workers:
More than 4.5 million

Average bricks made daily per family:

Government-allocated wage:
960 rupees/day ($6)

Average family income:
500 rupees/day ($3.1)

Average working hours:

Source: BLLF, Sparc

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan reported a very high mortality rate among children working at brick kilns. Additionally, about one in 20 families living near brick kilns have children who lost their eyesight.

"The bricks that these workers make are used to make our houses, hospitals, schools, universities and the parliament. But these people are shelterless and deprived of education, health facilities and any laws helping them." - Ghulam Fatima – founder Bonded Labour Liberation Front

"There is no ladies toilet facility at these brick kilns. They have to go in the open, either late night or early morning. They are harassed, their photos are taken and these women are then exploited."

They live in deplorable conditions, the water they use to mix the soil gives them skin diseases and the hazardous fumes from the billowing black smoke from the kilns causes asthma, tuberculosis and other diseases.

In 2009, there were 13,000 brick kilns in the country. Influential politicians and their relatives owned most of these kilns.

It was common knowledge that the kiln owners, in collaboration with corrupt police officials, often got criminal cases registered against the labourers to keep them under their control.

Human Rights Commission of Pakistan
"We were kept chained up after work, sometimes for days even, in a dark room without food" - Kasturi

Fatima has had several attempts at her life, been shot at, given electric shocks, arrested, beaten and put behind bars. But she says all those incidents made her more determined to fight for these workers.

Michael Masih worked at a brick kiln for a decade with his entire family before they were freed with the help of Bonded Labour Liberation Front. Now Masih, his father and three siblings are all working and have managed to open a food stall in a local market.

Some of the workers who manage to flee or are freed are forced back to the kiln by the owners. With no inspection of these sites, they have no protection and often end up in harsher conditions upon their return.