Bonded labour in Pakistan, particularly in the agriculture, brick kiln, and carpet industries, remains a critical issue despite legal frameworks aimed at its eradication.

Legal Framework and Challenges:

Pakistan has several laws intended to combat bonded labour, including the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act of 1992, which criminalizes debt bondage and mandates the release of bonded labourers. However, enforcement remains weak due to various factors, including corruption, political influence, and socio-economic dynamics. For instance, the feudal land ownership system in Sindh and other provinces perpetuates a cycle of debt bondage among agricultural workers. Landlords wield significant power, often colluding with local authorities to maintain control over indebted labourers​.

Agriculture:

In the agricultural sector, particularly in Sindh, bonded labour is prevalent due to the traditional feudal system. Tenants, or haris, often incur debts to landlords, leading to situations resembling slavery. Despite judicial interventions, such as the 2002 High Court of Sindh ruling which failed to recognize certain tenant farmers as bonded labourers, the practice continues largely unchecked. The complexity of agricultural arrangements and the strong political influence of landowners complicate efforts to address the issue effectively​.

Brick Kiln Industry:

The brick kiln industry is another significant sector where bonded labour is rampant. Estimates suggest that over four million people, including many children, work in about 20,000 brick kilns across Pakistan. Workers often enter into debt bondage through the peshgi system, where they receive advance payments but are unable to repay due to low wages, high-interest rates, and exploitative practices. The lack of government oversight and the involvement of influential kiln owners in local politics exacerbate the problem. Despite laws prohibiting child labour and regulating working conditions, enforcement is minimal, leading to widespread human rights abuses​ .

Carpet Industry:

The carpet industry also sees significant bonded labour, with entire families, including children, working to repay debts. Poor economic conditions and lack of alternative employment opportunities force families into these exploitative arrangements. Legal measures are in place, but like other sectors, enforcement is hindered by socio-political factors and corruption​.

Human Rights and Socio-Economic Impacts:

Bonded labourers in these industries face severe socio-economic challenges. They often work long hours under hazardous conditions for meager wages, which are insufficient to repay their debts or support their families. Children born into bonded labour families are deprived of education and basic rights, perpetuating the cycle of poverty and exploitation. Activists and NGOs continue to fight for the rights of these workers, but they face significant resistance from powerful vested interests​

Local Labour Rights Laws in Pakistan

Despite having domestic laws in place, many workers in Pakistan do not enjoy the rights and privileges guaranteed by international labour standards. This indicates that Pakistan’s intervention for the release and rehabilitation of bonded labourers has been inconsistent and ineffective, highlighting the need for stronger compliance with international labour standards and obligations.

The Constitution of Pakistan

The Constitution of Pakistan, 1973, includes several provisions aimed at protecting workers’ rights:

  • Article 11 prohibits slavery, forced labour, human trafficking, and child labour.
  • Article 3 mandates the state to eliminate all forms of exploitation.
  • Article 14(1) protects the dignity of individuals.
  • Article 37(e) ensures just and humane working conditions and prohibits employment of children and women in unsuitable vocations.
  • Article 38 requires equitable adjustment of rights between employers and employees, and landlords and tenants.

Despite these constitutional safeguards, comprehensive legislation specifically targeting bonded labour was only enacted with the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act of 1992.

Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1992

This Act was a significant milestone in addressing forced labour in Pakistan. It abolished bonded labour, nullified outstanding debts, and criminalized the practice with penalties including imprisonment and fines. The Act also provided for the return of any property seized by creditors and the release of bonded labourers from civil prisons.

A critical provision, Section 18, extends the law to include individuals associated with companies committing bonded labour, acting as a deterrent for corporate offenders.

Judicial Interventions

The judiciary has played a role in addressing bonded labour:

  • In Mushtaq Ahmad vs. Habib Oil Mills (Pvt) Ltd, the Lahore High Court ruled against withholding wages from reinstated workers, equating it to forced labour.
  • In Muhammad Siddique vs. Mansha, the court declared that brick kiln owners could not engage labour through advance payments, aligning with constitutional protections and the 1992 Act.

Implementation Challenges

The Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1992, while a legal framework, has seen limited enforcement. Reports indicate minimal detection of bonded labour cases and inadequate fines collected. The Act’s scope is also narrower compared to constitutional provisions, focusing primarily on debt bondage without addressing broader forced labour issues.

The 2012 amendment restricted the Act’s applicability to Punjab, and subsequent provincial laws in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Sindh aimed to address local needs but faced similar implementation challenges.

District Vigilance Committees (DVCs)

The Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Rules, 1995, mandated the creation of DVCs to oversee the law’s implementation. However, their effectiveness has been questionable, with reports of non-functionality and composition issues that compromise their purpose.

National and Provincial Initiatives

Efforts like the National Policy and Plan of Action for the Abolition and Rehabilitation of Bonded Labour introduced in 2001, and subsequent provincial laws, have faced criticism for poor funding and implementation. Despite some initiatives for child labour eradication and worker rehabilitation, significant gaps remain.

Other Relevant Laws

Other laws complementing the fight against forced labour include:

  • The Prevention and Control of Human Trafficking Ordinance, 2002, which criminalizes economic and sexual exploitation.
  • The Pakistan Penal Code, 1860, with provisions against slavery and forced labour under Sections 370, 371, and 374, imposing penalties for such practices.

In conclusion, while Pakistan has a robust legal framework to combat bonded labour, enforcement and implementation remain significant challenges. Efforts need to be intensified to ensure that workers’ rights are protected in line with both constitutional mandates and international labour standards.

By The Josh and Mak Team

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