Death threats fail to stop mission to save bonded labourers in Pakistan

Financial Times

September 15, 2015

In the middle of the night, Syeda Ghulam Fatima drove to a brick kiln near Lahore and ushered a family of bonded labourers into her waiting van.

They fled quickly to evade the kiln owners and did not have time to take their belongings — the children did not even have shoes. Yet once they were safe, the family cheered Ms Fatima.


“Thanks to you, we got out of that hell,” said the father, in a rescue featured in a Vice documentary on the US television channel HBO last year.

Ms Fatima, 47, is general secretary of the Bonded Labour Liberation Front Pakistan (BLLF), a non-profit in Lahore that has helped 80,000 bonded labourers across Pakistan since 1988.

In spite of its impact, BLLF is a shoestring operation run by Ms Fatima, her husband, one staff member and many volunteers. Its financial resources were dwindling and Ms Fatima worried she could not even pay her own medical bills.

That changed in August when Ms Fatima and BLLF’s work were featured on Humans of New York, a photo blog with 14.9m Facebook followers.

The blog’s founder, a 31-year-old American named Brandon Stanton, posted a series of photos from Pakistan this summer. Seven images showed heartbreaking stories of bonded labour in Pakistan.

Mr Stanton set a goal of raising $100,000 for BLLF. In less than 12 hours, the fundraising campaign reached more than $1m. Ultimately, $2.3m was raised through nearly 76,000 donations.

Ms Fatima was shocked. She treated Mr Stanton as a “routine guest” when she took him to brick kilns to meet bonded labourers.

“I didn’t know about him and his background before,” she says. Mr Stanton’s interest in her was piqued when he saw the Vice documentary featuring BLLF’s work.

The funds will help establish “Freedom Centers” to counsel, rehabilitate and advocate for bonded labourers.

“Our responsibility now is to honour what you have trusted us with, and we will,” says Ms Fatima in a message posted on the Humans of New York site. But tells the FT: “If donors from around the world can support, this is also the obligation of our nation, our government, society. I want to see my beloved country Pakistan free of bonded labour. I gave my blood; I give my life to this struggle.”

Syeda Ghulam Fatima

Photo: Humans of New York

Ms Fatima’s father was a railway employee and union activist who inspired her to become an activist. When she was in the eighth grade, Ms Fatima started working with brick kiln workers near Lahore to educate them about their rights.

“Not all my family was in favour of that,” recalls Ms Fatima. “Even my mother was not supporting me. But my father always supported me. God bless him.”

Over the years, she has been threatened, beaten and shot because of her work: freeing and counselling bonded labourers, campaigning for labour laws and pressuring brick kiln owners, police and politicians.

Ms Fatima has managed to escape several murder attempts. “They put a pistol to my head. I have been beaten many times. I was sent to jail,” she says in the Vice documentary.

“But when I see the state of the kiln workers and the brutalities committed against those women — after seeing those I don’t fear death.”

She was shot in the knee on her way to a court hearing against a kiln owner. Local politicians forbade the public hospital from treating her.

“I had to sell my house to afford treatment at a private hospital,” Ms Fatima told Humans of New York.

“But the brick kiln workers came together to try to help me pay for my treatment. Despite their poverty, they gave 5 to 10 rupees at a time. And they lined up to donate their blood.”

BLLF was founded by trade union activists and took on its current name in 1988. That year, a ruling by Pakistan’s Supreme Court prohibited bonded labour. But laws against bonded labour are largely unenforced and the practice is still widespread.

There are more than 20m people trapped in bonded labour around the world, with more than half of them in Asia, according to the International Labour Organization. But Ms Fatima estimates there are 4.5m bonded labourers in Pakistan alone, working in brick kilns, agriculture and carpet-making workshops.

Poor, vulnerable people fall into bonded labour when they need a loan or “advance payment” to pay for medical bills or other emergencies. Bonded labour can extend to entire families and debts can pass from generation to generation.

A bonded labourer featured in Humans of New York, started working at a brick kiln after his sister’s kidneys failed.

“We tried to raise the money to save her. We sold our cattle. We sold our property. We sold everything we had,” he told Humans of New York. Without other options, he took 5,000 rupees ($50) from a brick kiln, believing he could pay it back by working 15 to 20 days. However, his debt ballooned to 350,000 rupees ($3,400) and he still worked at the kiln.

“My sister died a long time ago. There’s no way out. Soon my debt will pass on to the next generation,” the labourer said. In the photo he holds a toddler against a backdrop of red bricks.

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