February 3rd, 2021
By Rehan Piracha
Observing that the State has presently failed to abolish bonded labour, Chief Justice of the Islamabad High Court Athar Minallah has remarked the labourers of brick kilns were not bound to repay vicious debt (peshgi) taken as advance payment of work.
The court was hearing a case related to juvenile bonded labourers on Tuesday (February 2) in Islamabad. Chief Justice Athar Minallah said loaning of vicious debt was an illegal act according to a Supreme Court judgment. The court ordered the Islamabad district administration to launch an awareness campaign for the labourers at brick kilns informing them that they were free to switch jobs and were not bound to work against their will.
On January 2, the court had constituted a commission to enquire into the prevalence of the menace of forced and bonded labour in Islamabad Capital Territory.The commission comprised deputy commissioner Hamza Shafqaat, lawyers Adnan Haider Randhawa and Umer Gillani, Sadia Bukhari from the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and Shakeel Anjum, president of the National Press Club. The commission submitted its 71-page report to the court on Tuesday. Chief Justice Athar Minallah directed the district administration to submit a report on the implementation of the recommendations of the commission on the next date of hearing.
The chief justice also directed the Islamabad High Court Journalist Association to assist the court. He expressed displeasure on the lack of coverage of issues relating to bonded labour on the media. “The whole day we just see coverage of politics,” he remarked, adding that an incident of slapping is depicted as a continuous happening of the day. The judge called Saqib Bashir, president of the Islamabad High Court Journalist Association, to the rostrum and directed him that the media should too play its part towards highlighting the issue of bonded labour instead of spreading depression among the masses. Saqib Bashir assured the court of full assistance in the matter.
Report of the Commission on the Elimination of Forced and Bonded Labour in ICT
In its report, the commission said the act of offering vicious debt (peshgi) to the kiln labourers was illegal as it was a new form of slavery in modern times.
Vicious debt widely prevalent
The commission found that the practice of extending advance loan was overwhelmingly prevalent in the brick kiln sector without exception which had resulted in sector-wide continuation and prevalence of the bonded labour system in violation of the Abolition Act, 1992.
No brick kiln registered
No brick kiln is registered either with the Labour Department, ICT, social security institutions, or with any other government authority relevant to the issue in hand. The labourers working in brick kilns (who are found to be in debt bondage, mostly along with their families) are not registered either with the Labour Department, ICT or with any other social security institutions. Nor is there any legal mechanism available for registration of their contracts with any department which can be an effective first step to curb the menace of debt bondage.
No periodic payment except meagre subsistence allowance
Wages are not paid on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. Instead a complex accounting system is in vogue which cannot be comprehended by the illiterate and simpleton bonded labour wherein accounts are settled on every Thursday. Part 56 (mostly dominant) of the earned wages is adjusted against the repayment of Vicious Debt (Peshgi) and fines, if any. And the labourers get only a meagre subsistence allowance to survive the succeeding week.
Labourers encouraged to work as family unit
Most of the bonded labour lives at the premises of brick kilns along with their families. Womenfolk and children are encouraged to informally work with the heads of the families. They are encouraged to work as a family unit, instead of as individual labourers. This practise violates many of the labour rights of womenfolk and children. Should they be formally employed as individual labourers, their rights like minimum wages right, maternity leave, sick leave etc would be protected under the relevant labour laws. Presence of womenfolk and children serves as a collateral/security of the vicious debt (peshgi) along with their valuables like motorcycles, animals etc. Labourers who work without families are usually seasonal. They also work in debt bondage but their bondage ends with the end of season.
No identification documents
The report stated that many labourers working at brick kilns do not have any identification documents like ID card and B forms etc. issued by NADRA. The commission met many persons of Afghan refugee heritage who work at brick kilns. Even though they and their children, having been born on Pakistani soil, are clearly entitled to Pakistani citizenship under Section 4 of the Pakistan Citizenship Act, 1951, NADRA does not grant them Identity Cards. As a result, most had no identification documents whatsoever and are living in a state of statelessness. Some claim to have Afghan Origin Cards, but those too expired in 2015. Lack of any effective citizenship documents results in these workers facing problems while seeking medical attention in public health facilities as well as exploitation at the hands of the local Police; this makes them uniquely vulnerable to debt-bondage.
Hazardous working conditions
The commission noted that working conditions at the brick kilns are hazardous. The labourers are not provided with any protective equipment (other than gloves) while performing hazardous tasks like igniting coal and picking bricks from the brick kilns etc. The labourers are provided with residential quarters but they are rudimentary and shabby accommodation near the brick kilns with inadequate sanitation facilities.
Children are not formally working at the brick kilns, though they are often providing a helping hand to their parents. The practise of child labour has largely been eliminated at brick kilns and no child works at a brick kiln other than with his/her family or relatives.
No opportunities for education
The report said children living with their parents at brick kilns have little opportunities of education, for which responsibility lies collectively with the parents, owners of brick kilns and the State. Very few children of labourers are getting education.
No health facilities
The commission found that there are no health facilities whatsoever near the brick kilns. The labourers working at brick kilns end up incurring additional debt whenever they require medical attention, since they do not have any sort of health insurance nor are public health facilities available in close proximity to brick kilns.
Legal lacuna left open for debt slavery
The commission noted that after devolution, Punjab has supplemented its adopted Abolition Act, 1992 with Punjab Prohibition of Child Labour at Brick Kilns Act 2016 whereby it has introduced many regressive changes in the Abolition Act, 1992 with which the Commission is not in agreement. The most regressive change is the allowance of Vicious Debt (Peshgi) upto Rs 50,000 which has opened the window for the continuance of debt slavery in Punjab. Although it has provided for registration of contract which is provided in a form appended with the law but the terms of the contract overwhelmingly tilt in favour of the owners of brick kilns and hence favouring the continuation and prevalence of bonded slavery.
In its recommendations, the Commission said the Labour Department, ICT, shall ensure registration of all brick kilns under the Factories Act, 1934, within three months commencing February 1, 2021. The Labour Department, ICT, shall also ensure execution of employment contracts and the maintenance of prescribed registers, under the relevant labour laws.
Secondly, the NADRA should be directed to ensure issuance of CNICs to brick kiln workers, and registration of their families/children by sending special teams to brick kilns within three months in collaboration with the Labour Department, ICT and the brick kiln owners.
Thirdly, no family should be made or allowed to work as a single unit. Instead, each member of a family shall be free to work under a separate contract with all the associated labour rights available to him/her under labour laws. The commission recommended that no child below the age of 14 years shall be employed or permitted to work at any brick kiln, as prohibited under Part II of the Schedule of the Employment of Children Act, 1991, being part of the “building and construction industry”.
The commission recommended that a court direction may be made for legislation on Domestic Workers Law for ICT. Till such legislation Punjab Domestic Workers Act 2019 may be adopted for ICT or other stop-gap arrangement through executive powers may be made till appropriate legislation. The Federal Directorate of Education may be directed to ensure arrangements for enrolment of workers’ children in schools and establishment of literacy centres.