Modern Day Slavery in Pakistan

Modern Day Slavery in Pakistan

Human slavery, once native to developing and underdeveloped nations, has now evolved into a global issue of modern day slavery with numbers estimated to be 40 million in 2016 as per a research conducted by the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the Walk Free Foundation.

The League of Nations Slavery Convention of 25 September 1926 described slavery as

“…the status or condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised” (art. 1(1)).

It further defined slave trade in the following words:

…all acts involved in the capture, acquisition or disposal of a person with intent to reduce him to slavery; all acts involved in the acquisition of a slave with a view to selling or exchanging him; all acts of disposal by sale or exchange of a slave acquired with a view to being sold or exchanged, and, in general, every act of trade or transport in slaves” (art. 1(2)).

Profit margins being generated by slavery in the global economy are estimated to stand at a staggering value of USD 150 billion, with the Asia-Pacific region being home to 9.5 million people trapped in debt bondage and other forms of forced labour. Pakistan has been ranked third out of 167 countries with 2.134 million people living in slavery, according to the Global Slavery Index of 2016. Sectors involving work on brick kilns, carpet weaving, coal mining, fishing, surgical equipment, domestic service and agriculture industries are home to the largest portion of slavery in Pakistan. Additionally, other forms of slavery like human trafficking, sexual exploitation, serfdom, child slavery, descent-based slavery and early marriages continue to violate the basic human rights of victims, in particular Article 4 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states that,

“No one shall be held in servitude or slavery; slavery and slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.”

Labour exploitation is the most widely adopted form of slavery in Pakistan, placing the country ninth on the radar of the Child Labour Index, and third on the Global Slavery Index 2013, among 196 countries. The term labour exploitation is an umbrella term for child labour, bonded labour and forced labour, all three of which make up the largest portion of Pakistan’s slavery instances.

Child labour, as per the International Labour Organization, has been defined as work which deprives children of their childhood and dignity, is harmful for their physical, moral and mental development, and interferes with their education (either by not allowing them to attend school, or making them leave school prematurely i.e. without compulsory education, or forcing them to combine school attendance with heavy work). It is a form of abuse which forces children to start working at a tender age, often below the minimum age limit, in harsh working conditions. These children are deprived of any legal status or contracts, forced to work with no fixed hours and exposed to physical and verbal abuse at the hands of their employers.

According to a report by Al Jazeera, there are approximately 12 million children working in Pakistan’s brick kiln industry where they are being forced to work for 14 hours a day, six days a week, lacking basic rights as workers and without access to social security. The child-dominated workforce in the brick kiln industry, unaware of basic rights, has fueled the creation of employer mafias that prevent these children from joining any trade unions, social welfare groups or any organizations which raise a voice against child labour by providing awareness of their rights as workers.

Female workers being forced to work in the brick kiln industry suffer from sexual exploitation which is exacerbated by the absence of national identity cards for these women. Without any form of identity, these female workers are subjected to human trafficking, organ trade, prostitution and sex trade, while the government is unable to track such illegal practices as these women are not registered within the national database.

Debt bondage, the second form of labour exploitation, occurs in the form of a loan given in advance to an employee by the employer, and since a majority of the population in rural areas owns no land it is dependent on the landlords for employment, access to irrigation facilities and loans especially in the absence of government initiatives. Loans are given to these employees without any formal documentation, or clear terms and conditions, and under high interest rates which make it almost impossible for these workers to pay them off. These poor workers are forced to take more loans from their employers in order to pay off the existing ones, trapping themselves in a vicious cycle of piling up debts without any legal documentation to uphold their rights. The employers capitalize on this opportunity to impose exclusive rights over the employees for failing to pay their outstanding balances by forcing those in debt to work for them, further undermining them by using physical violence in collaboration with local police authorities in case they attempt to seek legal assistance or default from loan payments.

The Asian Development Bank has estimated that 1.8 million people, constituting 1% of Pakistan’s population, are bonded labourers. To confine bonded labourers within employment, landlords also resort to coercion methods like keeping them in private jails and carrying out harsh physical beatings. Among the widely documented cases of debt bondage and servitude, a significant case that came to light was that of Haji Ghulam Khokhar, who had illegally detained 295 peasants in a forced labour camp.

According to a survey, marginalized groups, specifically the scheduled castes and religious minorities, make up 90 percent of the debt bondage victims. Debt bondage has also led to human trafficking of women and children, as part of loan repayments. Such is the gravity of debt bondage in Pakistan that it has been ranked as the third worst place in the world for debt bondage according to the Global Slavery Index 2013.

The third form of labour exploitation in Pakistan is forced labour, where employers use force to trap workers in their servitude, including penalties, death threats and intimidation. This type of servitude can also be seen in the form of forced begging where traffickers force children to beg on the streets for money, often by inflicting physical impairment upon poor children as a means to gather sympathy for the apparently disabled children who are left with no option but to beg for money. These trafficking rings have a structured system of making money, which also includes selling organs for money.

The nature and vast scale of modern slavery in Pakistan has also expanded in the form of forced marriages. Sexual slavery and trafficking has long existed throughout the global community and Pakistan is no different. Women are exploited through forced marriages, sexual abuse and physical violence. In rural areas, poverty leads to women being married for money without their consent, for the purposes of sustenance for their families, while in other cases poverty-stricken families are forced to sell women in order to repay debts. Women and girls are prime targets for trafficking in and out of the country. Women are traded between different tribal groups as forms of payment and for settling disputes, while girls are sold by their parents into forced marriages, domestic servitude and prostitution. In some areas, widows are considered to be the property of their deceased husband’s brother or other male members of the husband’s family after his death. Men take a number of loans to procure several wives, who may then be sent to work in brothels or alternatively ‘loaned’ to brothel owners, where their earnings are shared between the brothel owner and the husband. Bonded women are not allowed to leave the brothel until the debt of the husband has been cleared.

The latest form of forced marriages in Pakistan has emerged in the form of Chinese nationals who have migrated to Pakistan and have lured local women by promising money, foreign nationality and job prospects through marriage with Chinese immigrants. These women are being sold by their husbands into prostitution and sex slavery en masse, with their passports confiscated by the traffickers to force them into working for them.

Forced marriages have also fueled the curse of human trafficking in Pakistan, which has been defined by Section 2(h) of the Prevention and Control of Human Trafficking Ordinance 2002 of Pakistan as,

“…obtaining, securing, selling, purchasing, recruiting, detaining, harboring or receiving a person, notwithstanding his implicit or explicit consent, by the use of coercion, kidnapping, abduction, or by giving or receiving any payment or benefit, or sharing or receiving a share for such person’s subsequent transportation out of or into Pakistan by any means whatsoever for any of the purposes mentioned in section 3.”

Human trafficking is notoriously existent in Pakistan serving as a market for women and children from Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, India, Iran and Nepal, trafficked principally for forced labour. Pakistan operates as a transit point for women from Bangladesh and Nepal trafficked into the Gulf States. Pakistan has also facilitated sex-trade by providing routes used for smuggling and trafficking people to other countries. These routes are also used by trafficking rings to sell women and children for prostitution. According to the findings of United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), human trafficking rings operating in Pakistan mainly ship to the Gulf States, Iran, Turkey, South Africa, Uganda, Greece, North America, Southeast Asian countries, Far East Asian countries and other European countries. According to the same report, most migrants, both Pakistani and those in transit, are trafficked by land into Iran and then to Turkey where access to European countries like Greece and Spain become accessible. For traffickers, Pakistan’s coastal area acts as a strategic point in moving people to the Middle East.

Pakistan’s largest human trafficking ring is that of bonded labour. According to Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency, the largest number of traffickers operate in Punjab, ranging from 30 to 35 traffickers. In 2012, 40 officials had been under investigation, with one being dismissed and 33 punished for complicity in human trafficking.

Trafficking is not only limited to women. Children have been largely victimized by this trade as well. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) report that Pakistani girls are also trafficked to Middle Eastern countries for sexual exploitation. A report by the FIA has further revealed that the number of children ranging from four to twelve years being trafficked to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to be used as jockeys for professional camel races is in thousands.

The institution of modern slavery has sustained in Pakistan’s ecosystem owing to the rife poverty and rampant illiteracy among the population. According to the Global Slavery Index, 38.8% of Pakistan’s families live below the poverty line, enumerated at 31,86,000, with one in four individuals living in acute poverty. With the annual per capita household income in Pakistan at USD 650.644, the rate of inflation has an upward slope at a rate of 5%. The cost of one child’s education bears the opportunity cost of the entire family’s survival, thus families are forced to make their children work rather than have them pursue education.

This mindset can also be attributed to Pakistan’s low literacy rate of 54.9%, which has ranked Pakistan 16th in the list of countries with the lowest literacy rate. At present, the education system in Pakistan is only able to accommodate one-third of the nation’s child population, which is increasing at an alarming rate. Due to the lack of education, birth rate is also high among these families, with each household having little income to support large families. Low literacy rate has led to a lack of awareness about issues related to high population growth and consequently the developing economies are faced with an increasing burden on their resources. With no educational background, the workforce is also only skilled enough to work in low-wage industries with poor working conditions. These unskilled workers are exploited at the hands of their employers due to the lack of alternative job opportunities provided by the government at a minimum wage rate.

Pakistan’s economic growth has also been impaired due to continued poverty and a lack of education among the workforce which has failed to create new jobs and thus stalled the country’s development. Consequently, this economic imbalance, coupled with the unavailability of educational resources for the population has continued to sustain poverty in developing countries like Pakistan.

Elimination of slavery by 2030 has been identified in Goal 8 (target 8.7) of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in the following words:

“…take immediate and effective measures to eradicate forced labour, and modern slavery and human trafficking and secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labour, including recruitment and use of child soldiers, and by 2025 end child labour in all its forms.”

Different instruments are being used internationally to address various forms of slavery. These include the Covenant of the League of Nations and the ILO Convention. The widespread nature of poverty in Pakistan has called for action to stop these mass human rights violations in the wake of slavery. The Constitution of Pakistan 1973 (in Articles 11, 17, 18, 25 and 37e) advocates the elimination of all kinds of exploitation and prohibits the employment of children below the age of 14 years in any factory or mine or in any other hazardous activity. All the specific enactments concerning elimination or regulation of employment of children, including the Factories Act 1934, Mines Act 1923, Shops and Establishment Ordinance 1969, Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act 1992 and the Employment of Children Act 1991, have been formulated within the framework of the Constitution of Pakistan 1973 and after ratifying international conventions.

Due to a large number of pending human slavery cases going unnoticed, the judicial system has been strengthened to prevent further victimization of innocent people and uncover existing networks to prevent human trafficking. Since the 1992 Bonded Labour Law, lower courts have delivered numerous decisions in favor of bonded labourers in the minority of cases presented by labour and human rights organizations which actually do end up making it to court. By 2007, courts in Punjab had released up to 2,715 bonded labourers.

To raise awareness, as a warning and as a call to action, the UNODC has distributed 300,000 flyers and 80,000 posters throughout four districts of Punjab and Balochistan, where most trafficking takes place. Furthermore, the Pakistani government in 2001 announced a National Policy and Plan of Action for the Abolition of Bonded Labour and Rehabilitation of Freed Bonded Labourers. To implement the Plan it also established a national fund putting aside PKR 100 million. The National Plan included relief packages for freed bonded labourers, the creation of an information base, awareness-raising campaigns, advocacy and a vocational training program.

The failure of Pakistan’s government to take further responsibility for the plight of modern day slaves, especially with a lack of implementation of legislation, has necessitated a rethinking of existing mechanisms. To address the problem, the government should start by conducting comprehensive surveys to visualize the actual dimension of the crisis so that a pertinent form of regulation is enforced. Vocational training programs should be launched by the government in rural areas to impart skills to children in those areas. Rehabilitation programs should be set up for victims of slavery and monitored to prevent victims from going back into slavery. In rural areas, NGOs should be formed to encourage the saving of money on behalf of bonded labour workers, in the form of  worker unions and unions for buying animals for income generation. Further, social protection schemes must be extended to the informal sector, coupled with cash transfer schemes, public employment programs, health protection and micro finance initiatives. Government must undertake training for law enforcement and labour department officials at national as well as district levels, on how to identify bonded labour and implement laws relating to bonded labour and labour standards. International businesses and multinational corporations (MNCs) must adhere to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by not exploiting the underprivileged workforce of South Asian countries. Further, law enforcement must be strengthened at a local level to take action against incidents of slavery. Law enforcement agencies should exhibit transparency and accountability throughout the operational hierarchy to ensure that no leverage is given to human trafficking mafias. Lastly, the Pakistani government should work in collaboration with all the stakeholders involved in the eradication of bonded labour, including government departments, NGOs, businesses, civil society, international organizations and donors, along with specialized agencies of the UN and ILO in order to counter the growing curse of modern slavery.

Slavery continues to threaten the global community at large. Although the government of Pakistan acknowledges bonded labour as a mass exploitation and infringement of human rights, little action has been taken in the wake of enforcing legislation to curb its growing presence. The global community should present a united front to counter this dilemma and work in conjunction with international bodies, notably the United Nations and ILO in order to eradicate its existence.


Sources  *
9 Barcelona Traction, Light and Power Co, Ltd. (Belgium v. Spain), Judgment of 5 February 1971, I.C.J. Reports, 1970, p. 32
56  X v. Federal Republic of Germany, Application No. 4653/70, European Commission on Human Rights, Decisions and Reports, vol. 46, 1974, p. 22
66 . ILO Convention No. 26 and Recommendation No. 30 (applicable to trades) and Convention No. 99 and Recommendation No. 89 (applicable to agriculture), which stipulated that the minimum wage should not be fixed at a lower rate than one which would ensure the subsistence of the worker and his or her family
76 ILO Convention No. 95, supra note 62


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of or any other organization with which she might be associated.

Shahraj Raza

Author: Shahraj Raza

The writer is a law student at SOAS, University of London and aspires to be a corporate law solicitor as well as human rights activist.