Peshgi (debt bondage)

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Victory in sight

By Zofeen T. Ebrahim



For 17 long years the brick kiln owners defied a Supreme Court order banning the practice of ‘peshgi’ (debt bondage) which allowed them to keep their workers in thrall. And they were powerful enough to ignore subsequent legislation in the National Assembly in 1992, abolishing bonded labour.

But sensing the changing climate in this feudal country, the Pakistan Bhatta Mazdoor Union (PBMU) of brick labourers, which claims to represent at least a million workers, launched a make-or-break strike that ran for eight days before the kiln owners got the message and moved for a compromise recently.

“We spoke to the owners. We never had the courage (earlier) to even look them in the eye. So, for many of us, this strike was an assertion that we can, once united, move mountains,” says Yunus Rahu, President of PBMU.

“We call this a positive strike as to quite an extent our demands have been met,” Rahu said, explaining wages per thousand bricks have been increased from 220 rupees (3.6 U.S. dollars) to 350 rupees (5.3 dollars). “The government has assured us that if the owners do not put an end to the peshgi system we can approach the court (earlier it was impossible to register cases against the owners).”

Most importantly, the government has stepped in with a promise that the brick kilns would be registered soon. “The government has promised to start the process and we will see if they keep to it in the next six to eight months. If they don’t, we now know how to get our way — we will protest again,” Rahu said.

Hanging on for eight days without wages was tough for the labourers who have little to fall back on. “We were all prepared. We have realised that till we fight, the government or the owners are not bothered. We have to sacrifice a little to make things better for ourselves and our future generations.”

The strike, which crippled the functioning of some 15,500 kilns across the country on which Pakistan’s massive construction industry depends, was the first national protest of its kind with the workers vowing not to make a single brick until their demands were met.

Apart from better wages and kiln registration, the workers demanded an end to the humiliation of women workers at the hands of the owners and the withdrawal of all false cases registered by the police at the behest of the owners.

The brick workers agitation began in earnest on March 18 when some 7,000 workers, 2,000 of them women, held massive demonstrations in Lahore city.

The kiln owners retaliated by bringing criminal cases against workers who dared join the protest and many were beaten and locked up by police acting in collusion with the owners.

Farooq Tariq, general secretary of the Labour Party Pakistan, which helped form the PMBU two years ago, said: “The strike broke centuries-old social relationships between the owners and workers or slaves. The attempt is to bring the bhatta workers within the fold of formal labour, with a contract of eight hours and fixed minimum wages.”

Tariq said that although the Supreme Court and the federal Shariah (religious) court had decided in favour of the workers, it is the strike which is really going to make a difference. “If the workers’ demand that kilns be registered is met, the workers will become entitled to education, health and other facilities which are specified in law and that is one reason why the owners never wanted them to form unions. There are signs of pressure felt by the owners in the sudden overtures they are making in negotiating with the union,” said Tariq, who foresees a kind of a ‘domino effect’ on the construction industry, which is experiencing a boom.

Bonded labour, or debt slavery, though banned by law, is common in brick-making, construction, carpet weaving, agriculture, mining, tanning and domestic work. Ironically, the success of the strike owed a great deal to the refusal of kiln owners to invest in modern machinery and rely instead on primitive methods, using sheer human labour to make the bricks. Thus, the strike, when it happened, ensured that production came to a standstill.

More than 90 per cent of brick workers are caught in the peshgi system, said Tariq. The owners, who are usually also feudal landowners, give the workers loans during emergencies or to meet daily requirements, which are then deducted with heavy interest against wages under terms that translate into perpetual bondage, he said.

On April 20 the government, in a bid to head off the strike, promised the union that the government would be taking action against brick-kiln owners who deducted peshgi from workers’ wages, but this seems unlikely to happen. “The kiln owners are very influential and have strong links with the police, the army, government and civil bureaucracy,” said Tariq.

Police officers routinely refuse to register complaints when labourers report physical assault linked to debt bondage, and for all practical purposes the law is a privilege not available to bonded labourers. Workers who attempt to flee are easily captured by the guards or local police and beaten up as punishment and as deterrence to others. As in classical slavery, a worker can be sold by one employer to another and the peshgi debt transferred. Women are the worst affected. They are not paid directly but through male relatives and, according to reports, are often raped by kiln owners or their guards.

In March, Pakistani newspapers printed photographs of several brick kiln workers, showing scars on their bodies that resulted from surgical operations to have a kidney removed. The organs were reportedly sold to pay off kiln owners and buy freedom.

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