PESHAWAR, Pakistan – Squatting on the wet ground, in clothes covered in dried mud, Qaseema Khan, 8, is helping her father and brother make bricks by pushing clay into the molds. Qaseema started working at the brick kiln in the Peshawar suburb of Meera Kachori when she was only 5 years old. Instead of going to school and playing with toys like other girls her age, she spends 10 hours a day making bricks to help keep her family from starving.
“I started work at the brick kiln when my father suddenly fell ill and was diagnosed with kidney problems,” she says in a shy voice. With her father bedridden for three months, his children were forced to work to escape poverty. “I wish to go to school and want to become a teacher, but I know my wish will not materialize,” she says.
Qaseema’s father, Kameen, has been working at the brick kiln for 25 years. When he fell ill, he had to borrow money to buy food and medicine, and ended up owing $400 to his employer and $120 to his local shopkeeper. He was told that in order to work off his debt, he had to recruit his children to work with him. “Me and my two children collectively earn $9 per 600 bricks,” he says. “Usually we make 1,000 bricks in a day.” When sold at market, every thousand bricks earn the kiln owners $100.
With an income of $3 per day per person, families that work the brick kilns can barely afford to eat. “Sometimes a good Samaritan will come and feed us,” says Qaseema. “When it rains, we do not work and do not earn a single penny and go to bed hungry.”
One Step From Slavery
Pakistan’s brick-making industry is run on a thinly veiled system of bonded labor that can trap several generations of one family. Typically, it starts with an employee at a brick kiln asking to borrow money from their employer for food, a dowry, medical treatment or any other number of reasons. The kiln owner loans the money, in exchange for which the man agrees to work for a meager income or none at all, until the loan is paid off. The size of the loan starts off small, but the terms are designed to keep it growing indefinitely. These loans can take many years to pay off, often obliging the man’s children to also work at the brick kiln, to keep the family out of poverty.
The practice is illegal: In 2013, the Supreme Court of Pakistan issued a ruling forbidding brick kiln owners from giving loans to workers that amount to more than 15 days of wages. But with towns and villages across the country relying on brick kilns for their survival, the law is rarely enforced.
According to Syeda Ghulam Fatima, secretary-general of the Lahore-based Bonded Labor Liberation Front Pakistan, more than 20,000 brick kilns operate across Pakistan, employing over 45,000 people “whose rights are being exploited by the brick kiln owners.”
Activists say working at a Pakistani brick kiln is akin to modern-day slavery in a country that has been struggling to tackle the issue of bonded labor. Last year’s Global Slavery Index by the Walk Free Foundation estimates that 45.8 million people are subject to some form of modern slavery in the world. Pakistan ranks third on the list, with 2.13 million people believed to be enslaved in the country.
Education and Action
Driven by poverty and lack of access to education, tens of thousands of children work at Pakistan’s brick kilns – underpaid, overworked and exploited – even though the country’s constitution states that “no child below the age of 14 years shall be engaged in any factory or mine or any other hazardous employment.” According to the Ministry of Federal Education’s Academy of Educational Planning and Management, by 2015, just over 24 million children in Pakistan were not in school, and over 12 million of them were girls. And an increasing number of them will end up in bonded labor, say activists.
“Lack of political will, improper and poor implementation of laws regarding child labor and bonded labor, and an absence of checks and balances on the brick kilns are major obstacles in eliminating the menace of child and bonded labor,” says Jehanzeb Khan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa regional manager for the Society for the Protection of Rights of the Child.
At the brick kiln in Meera Kachori, 9-year-old Gul Mena is filling molds with clay. “I have been working at the brick kiln for the last three years,” she says. “I wish to pay off my father’s debt immediately.” Gul talks about wanting to play hopscotch and pakran pakrai (a traditional version of catch) with other girls, which she can never do because she is always working at the brick kiln.
“I can’t quit the job,” she says, a sadness in her voice. “And I know my younger siblings – willingly or unwillingly – will also have to work at the brick kiln, because we are children of a lesser god.”