Legal Landscape of Bonded Labour in Agriculture, Brick Kiln and Carpet Industries

List of Acronyms
ILO                  International Labour Organization
FATA               Federally Administered Tribal Areas
PATA               Provincially Administered Tribal Areas
UDHR             Universal Declaration of Human Rights
ICCPR             International Covenant for Civil and Political rights
ICESCR           International Covenant for Social and Cultural rights
CRC                 Convention on the Rights of the Child
IPEC                International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour
GSP                 Generalized Scheme of Preferences
FATA               Federally Administered Tribal Areas
PATA               Provincially Administered Tribal Areas
PEBLIP           Promoting the Elimination of Bonded Labour in Pakistan
HRCP               Human Rights Commission of Pakistan
PILER              Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research
MoL                 Ministry of Labour
DFID                Department for International Development
TRDP               Thardeep Rural Development Project’s
CRPP                Child Rights Project
PPC                   Pakistan Penal Code
DVCs                District Vigilance Committees
SHRC                Sindh Human Rights Commission
SCSW               Sindh Commission on the Status of Women
NGO                 Non-governmental Organization
UNICEF           United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund


The goal of this research is to establish whether Pakistan’s legislative framework is sufficient in curbing the bonded labour system by safeguarding the rights of victims. This article will commence by showcasing a statistical and factual analysis of three major sectors where bonded labour is most embedded. It will then introduce the relevant international instruments which condemn bonded labour. Pakistan’s domestic legal regime, which criminalizes forced labour, will be carefully scrutinized, the compatibility of which will be assessed with international law. Finally, loopholes in Pakistan’s existing legislative framework will be identified and diverse solutions with respect to efficient implementation of the law will be provided.


When a person is forced to work in order to pay off a debt, it is called debt bondage.[1] Having no control over their debt, these labourers are deceived into working for little to no pay. The majority or all of this earned money is used to repay their loan. The value of their work exceeds the original loan amount.[2]

More than 85% of the estimated 20 million bonded labourers across the world are in India, Nepal and Pakistan and, having been locked into such employment, these workers are trapped and unable to leave.[3] As per the International Labour Organization (ILO) data, the aforementioned number encapsulates 18.7 million (90%) labourers who are exploited in the private economy or businesses.[4] Women and girls, who account for 11.4 million victims, are particularly vulnerable to abuse. Men and boys, who constitute 9.5 million in population, have also been affected.[5]

The exploitation of forced labour, which includes domestic work, agricultural and other economic activities, accounts for US$51 billion of the total estimated illicit profits earned by the use of forced labour in the private economy around the world which amounts to US$150 billion per year, the bulk of which is generated in Asia.[6] According to the ILO, 22% of forced labour, which is an overwhelming majority of forced labour, is exacted for the purpose of forced sexual exploitation, while 68% is levied for the purpose of forced labour exploitation. To name a few, bonded labour is practiced in the following sectors globally:

  • agriculture
  • construction
  • mining
  • fishing
  • forestry
  • glass bangle making
  • tanneries industry
  • manufacturing and utilities
  • garments and textile industry
  • carpet making industry.

This research will critically analyze the extent to which forced labour subsists in Pakistan, the socio/economic reasons behind the practice, compliance with domestic and international labour laws and the reforms which may minimize, if not eradicate, the use of bonded labour altogether. Most importantly, potency of Pakistan’s legal framework attempting to curb bonded labour will also be assessed.

Chapter 1: Population, Causes and Nature of Bondage

Debt bondage is a pressing issue in Pakistan. The bonded labour system employs the system of ‘peshgi (advance) to bind those in poverty to a life of servitude through a supposedly voluntary contract.[7] Other than the debt trap, bonded labour has all the similarities to other practices of slavery and gets enforced through violence and exploitation.[8] The basic human rights of the economically underprivileged are violated through bonded labour, resulting in the establishment of an organized system of slavery. As a result, the system helps economically stable sections of society by supplying low-cost labour for agricultural and industrial interests.[9] Bonded labour practices, being the most exorbitant in agriculture, brick kiln and carpet industries, exist in:

  • Pakistan’s agricultural sector, especially in the Sindh province, which is built on a feudal land ownership system;
  • in brick kilns across the country, particularly in Punjab; and
  • in Balochistan’s coal mines.[10]

This dissertation will now delve into the specifics of the said sectors and discuss the social and economic root causes for the widespread subsistence of modern slavery. A salient feature of these industries is the employment of children, which brings children into the realm of bonded labourers. Thus, it will be fitting to discuss the role of society and cultural discourse which entraps children into forced labour, much of which is a consequence of traditional practices and gender disparity.[11]

1.1 The Agricultural Sector

‘Independence’ agriculture[12] has made considerable contribution to the GDP, contributing a mere 25% but providing 65% of the total exports by employing 45% of the labour force in Pakistan.[13] Importantly, around 67.5% of Pakistan’s population depends directly on agriculture.[14] Women and girls are bonded in their own right i.e. as a consequence of their own qualifications instead of an association with someone else[15]: they are often bonded in domestic work, carpet making and weaving industries.[16] ‘Peasants’ who were once detained, when interviewed by Human Rights Watch, revealed the conditions of severe brutality[17] (especially in private jails such as in Dadu District which are now rare), including women being raped in the night by the armed guards and giving birth to a number of children following such assaults.[18]

There are multiple reasons behind the practice of forced labour in the agriculture industry. For one, lack of effective and comprehensive land reforms has resulted in twisted landownership patterns and exploitative production methods[19] by the zamindars (agricultural landlords). As a result, agricultural output is low and landless haris (peasants) and small farmers live in deplorable conditions. Such dependence on rich landlords for accessing land on rent and agriculture inputs converts poor peasants into slaves.[20]

As a result, these agricultural workers are prohibited from leaving the farms without repaying loans and even though their work appears to be that of independent tenants, in reality they are bonded labourers. The patterns of patronage in central Punjab also place reliance on the phenomenon of bonded labour: big landowners and tribal heads dominate Pakistani society, with monopolies that stem over local governmental institutions, economic resources, and means of physical coercion, making others dependent on them for welfare and security.[21] It is due to this dynamic that no political force has the power to change the patronage system and why such control adds onto, rather than mitigate, the bonded labour system.[22] Additionally, acute poverty, non-availability of job opportunities, and societal inequality are other reasons why bonded labour entices the poor into its vicious trap, making them bound and dependent for the remainder of their lives. Thus, bonded labour is generational: debt bondage is repeated, for example, where at the end of a contract, the workers find that they owe a certain debt to their employer, and so have no option but to enter into a new contract in order to pay off the debt.[23] Resultantly, the debt unfairly cumulates, and so, forces generations of people in debt bondage and forced labour.[24] The only reason for the bleak fate of these individuals is that they were born poor and can now be sold by one owner to another.

It is important to highlight that in 2017, the Pakistan Worker’s Federation estimated that the minimum monthly expense of a 5-member family stands at Rs.40,519, while the unskilled labour employed for livestock feeding, application of fertilizer, sowing, irrigation and supervising of harvesting, picking, threshing and loading earns a salary of only Rs.1000-1500 per month.[25] Even if one totals the entire family’s earning of, say Rs.5000-7000, along with the income obtained via other methods, it does not suffice to run a household. Such is the bitter truth of the hardships faced by the poverty-stricken masses of our country.

Moreover, even though some bonded labourers are freed and many of them escape, they can be recaptured or kidnapped.[26] For example, in September 1998, Mureed Khan Marri, a strong landlord, took more than 150 armed men and attacked a camp of bonded labourers who had been released by activists from his private jail. He kidnapped 87 of them, including women and children. The police did not stop him.[27]

The fact that such cases are not brought on record indicates the strength of influence that these landlords have. Officials and politicians in Sindh and Balochistan have been hesitant to acknowledge the existence of bonded labour in the agriculture industry.[28] Several reasons contribute to this hesitancy:

  1. For starters, the linked relationship is frequently mistaken for a contractual business agreement.[29]
  2. Second, the tenant-landlord relationship is exceedingly diverse: not all tenants work under bondage conditions, and even the notion of bondage is influenced by the wide range of agricultural arrangements. [30]
  3. Third, a powerful feudal lobby and a political-feudal nexus have kept the problem from gaining traction.[31]
  4. Fourth, due to the tightly connected economic, social and tribal links in the agriculture sector, official processes put in place by the government to discover incidents of bondage are often ineffective.[32]

This suggests lack of efficiency on part of the Pakistani government, which has failed to take adequate steps to address the issue on a practical scale, as the real number of trapped bonded labourers seems underreported.

Children, regardless of their social and economic circumstances, are, undoubtedly, prospective assets for every nation and whose significance as the future of any country can neither be denied nor ignored. A study by Chaudhry and Garner (2007) reveals that exploitative child labour in pathetic working conditions is one of Pakistan’s grave problems today, increasing particularly in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) and PATA (Provincially Administered Tribal Areas).[33] Since most of Pakistan’s working children are involved in agriculture, most of which is family-based,[34] they have little chance of escaping their households as they receive no schooling. Thus, insufficient education, unemployment, poverty, large family units and single parenthood are the main factors which automatically lead to bondage in child labour.[35]

An important judgment of the High Court of Sindh, Circuit Court, Hyderabad (2002), should be considered in this regard.[36] Surprisingly, according to the court, the haris (landless sharecroppers)[37] in this case, who owed debts to their landlords, were not considered to be involved in bonded labour. Perhaps the Sindh High Court was more receptive to the claims of landlords and their concerns regarding timeliness of agricultural duties like planting and harvesting? Or perhaps such a tenant farmer-landlord partnership was regarded as a social arrangement rather than one akin to employment? Whatever the reasoning, the High Court of Sindh should have considered the haris to be bonded labourers given their circumstances and giving due weightage to the landmark 1990 Supreme Court decision in Darshan Masih Vs. The State.[38] Consequently, if the courts themselves turn a blind eye towards the harsh realities faced by such individuals without holding the perpetrators accountable, how can we expect the alleged perpetrators to treat the labourers fairly and follow the law?

1.2 The Brick Kiln Industry

Pakistan’s brick kilns, which are small-scale manufacturing units situated in rural areas and the outskirts of urban areas,[39] employ men and children who mould and fire bricks made of clay. As an estimation, nearly 90% of the brick kiln workers in Pakistan are bonded.[40] Studies suggest that till the year 2021, there were approximately 20,000 brick kilns in Pakistan.[41] Bondage is less severe in brick kilns than in agriculture (though according to Human Rights Watch it does include consistently cruel and degrading treatment like corporal punishment, captivity and denial of the right to organize) and so, for some workers, this sector offers them an escape from even harsher conditions.[42]

Most employees in the kiln industry are migrants (from other districts) and marginalised locals (of ‘lower’ caste).[43] Females and children generally work as patheras (brick makers), which is, comparatively, a less difficult job. Many of them, together with their families, reside on site.[44]

A direct result of Pakistan’s debt bondage peshgi system is that many children work as bonded labourers in the production of bricks and coal mines.[45] Around 60% of those working at kilns are below the age of 13.[46] The mortality rate amongst them is very high and one out of every 20 families has a blind child.[47] Like their parents, even the children at brick kilns do not have the freedom to move out of the premises and require special permission to do so.[48]

As noted, women also form a fundamental part of this sector: besides household work, they work the same hours of the same days as men and are even told to work during pregnancy, with no maternity leave available to them, and forced to work even in the event of illness or death in the family.[49] Importantly, prostitution dens are also run in some kilns.[50] Women in brick kilns are often victims of rape whilst also facing other forms of physical abuse.[51]

Similar to agriculture, people in the brick kiln sector are trapped in debt bondage and unable to repay cash advances and loans as a result of poverty. Other ingredients such as a high interest imposed on cash advances, forged entries in account books and low wages also contribute to bondage.[52] Many human rights organizations and workers contend that it is the state’s failure in ensuring social welfare and employment security to the poorest, which goes hand in hand with the improper implementation of laws.[53]

A study of brick kiln labourers working in the outskirts of Islamabad and Rawalpindi found that 87% of the workers were illiterate and unable to write their names.[54] The majority (62%) began working between the ages of 7 and 10.[55] The vast majority (99%) indicated that it owed more than Rs.10,000. Many of them noted that while some members of their families were permitted to visit relatives and hometowns, the entire family was unable to relocate until the debt was paid off.[56]

It was in response to the concerns of bonded labourers in the brick kiln sector that the Supreme Court of Pakistan initiated proceedings in 1989 in the prominent case titled Darshan Masih Vs. The State. It was this judgment which triggered the criminalization of the bonded labour system. In this case, some brick kiln bonded labourers wrote a telegram to the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Pakistan, pleading for the ‘protection and bread’ for their families. They stated that 3 of the labourers had been kidnapped by their owners while the rest were ‘hiding like animals without protection or food.’ Taking action, the Supreme Court ordered for the peshgi system to be discontinued and held that the court could, under its original jurisdiction, enforce the fundamental rights of the labourers, making bonded labour illegal.[57] Notwithstanding the efforts of the apex court in identifying and condemning the root problem, bondage in the brick kiln industry continues to burgeon because of the influence of industry owners.

1.3 The Carpet Industry

The carpet and rug industries in Pakistan make up around 2.5% of the total exports,[58] having generated an earning of US$199.8 million in 2005-06.[59] The United States of America (USA), being the largest buyer of Pakistani carpets, imports carpets worth US$70-80 million annually.[60] Carpet-weaving employs approximately more than 1.5 million of the most vulnerable, marginalized and dispersed population and usually takes place either in a common workplace/shed, or the weaver’s home[61] in rural areas, or low-income communities in urban centers in the provinces of Punjab, Sindh and Balochistan and refugee settlements in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa).[62]

According to ILO’s 2004 rapid assessment study, 40% of the workforce engaged in carpet weaving includes children under the age of 15 years.[63] The National Child Labour Survey 1996 had indicated that incidents of illnesses and injuries faced by children were the highest in the carpet weaving industry, including eye diseases caused by insufficient light, pulmonary diseases caused by wool dust, headaches, malnutrition and skeletal deformation in most of the workers in the Thar desert.[64] Recently, Pakistan felt a jolt when its exports to the European Union were turned down under the guise of alleged child labour in the sector.[65] Such sanctions are necessary to achieve peace and equality by upholding the basic human dignity of children and ensuring their wellbeing and growth since they are equally important individuals of our society. Every nation should provide adequate protection to the children of its society, ensuring that their health and education is not compromised and they are not exploited for cheap labour.

Any nation, in my perspective, is a failure if, even by existence of laws, it fails to provide adequate protection to the children of its society. It is crucial to highlight that engaging children in bonded labour has detrimental impacts on their social, psychological and physical development, making them prone to abuse and having their rights violated.[66]

The conditions faced by female workers in the carpet industry are also far from satisfactory, since most of them are frail, malnourished and complain of continuous periods of headaches and weak eyesight.[67]

The lack of education and access to alternative skill building avenues in landless people leaves them with no choice but to take up carpet weaving as a means of livelihood.[68] Many individuals belonging to the Thar district in the Sindh province of Pakistan have suffered a loss of cattle due to recurring droughts. Similarly, Afghan migrants in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have lost their means of livelihood due to the political turmoil in Afghanistan.[69]

Statistics derived via PILER’s (Pakistan Institute of Labour Education & Research)[70] study suggest that 98% of the carpet weaving families are indebted because their earnings are too low, compelling them to take loans for subsistence.[71]

The discussion in Chapter 1 indicates that bonded labour is an ongoing endemic in Pakistan, which was ranked 8th out of 167 countries on the Global Slavery Index in 2014 and 3rd/167 in the year 2018.[72] Ultimately, the need for rehabilitation and rectification of this evil is a dire necessity and can only be achieved by criminalizing such discriminatory practices via enactment of appropriate laws, implementation of such laws and compliance with these laws.

The following chapter will enclose a deliberation of the international regime associated with bonded labour i.e. appraisal of:

  • the International Bill of Rights
  • the Slavery Convention 1926
  • ILO Conventions No. 29, No. 105, No. 182
  • 1956 ILO Supplementary Convention.

Chapter 2: International Labour Laws

The presence of forced labour and other forms of exploitative practices brings dishonor to any nation, conveying an unacceptable message to other states. As discussed above, Pakistan’s human rights violations in the labour sector have been highlighted over time. International law thus plays a cardinal role in imposing obligations on states with regard to the treatment of citizens within their own jurisdictions. If this international obligation is violated, the state is answerable to both international and national human rights supporters who raise their voices against such misuse of rights.[73] Importantly, Pakistan, being a signatory to almost all international conventions on slavery, forced labour, bonded labour and child labour, has a duty to protect its citizens from exploitative practices.

The practice of bonded labour in different sectors of Pakistan has been highlighted in the previous chapter. This chapter will identify the international legal framework governing bonded labour, starting with the International Bill of Rights which provided a general set of rights and laid the ground for other specific treaties such as the ILO Convention on Forced Labour, 1930 (No. 29), the primary focus of which was to combat forced or compulsory labour. It is the ratification of these treaties which makes it crucial for Pakistan to enact laws and take further steps to fulfill its international commitments.

2.1 The Initial International Regime

2.1.1 UDHR

Forced labour is not only an issue of the current century but one which has been rampant for a long time, thereby necessitating international law to recognize its presence and lay down legal grounds for its prohibition.

Article 4 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states that “no one shall be held in slavery or servitude” and prohibits it in all forms.[74] These rights have been elaborated in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).

2.1.2 ICCPR and ICESCR

Article 8 of the ICCPR prohibits the use of forced or compulsory labour.

Article 9 recognizes every person’s right to liberty and security.[75]

Article 7 of the ICESCR provides that everyone has the right to:

  • just conditions of work;
  • fair wages ensuring a decent living;
  • equal pay for equal work;
  • safe and healthy working conditions;
  • equal opportunity to be promoted; and
  • rest and leisure.

Article 10 of the ICESCR expounds that:

  • special protection should be granted to mothers with respect to childbirth;
  • children and youth should be protected from economic exploitation;
  • the employment of children and youth in harmful work should be prohibited; and
  • states should set a minimum age limit below which child labour should be prohibited.[76]

2.1.3 CRC

Article 19[77] of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) requires state parties to take appropriate measures, including the establishment of social programmes, to protect children from “all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation, including sexual abuse.” Importantly, Article 32 of the CRC necessitates state parties to acknowledge the right of children to be protected from “economic exploitation” and performing “hazardous work” and imposes an obligation on state parties to take “legislative, administrative, social and economic measures” to ensure the implementation of these provisions.[78]

Pakistan is a signatory to all the abovementioned international treaties. Notwithstanding the efforts of the International Bill of Rights in putting forth a legal framework to safeguard the rights of bonded labourers globally, there was still a grave need to draft laws with the central objective of the eradication of slavery.

Having stunted the growth of many nations, the escalation of the bonded labour system necessitated the establishment of an institution like the ILO to support the victims of forced slavery. Without a doubt, it is the ILO which is the backbone of many domestic labour laws for different states and it has strongly recognized the rights of bonded labourers over the years by setting labour standards via the introduction of many international treaties, development of policymaking schemes and the devising of programmes that encourage decent work for all men and women,[79] to counteract the menace of slavery which is still alive as a burning problem of the modern era.

The dissertation will now focus on the salient features of the international legal framework administering bonded labour.

2.2 The Slavery Convention, 1926

The Slavery Convention was the very first step towards eradication of slavery. It was signed in September 1926 in Geneva and enforced in March 1927, whereby the states were obliged to “bring about progressively the complete abolition of slavery.[80] Duties under this Convention are not limited to internal action within a state but are such that they bind other states to provide assistance in eradicating slavery as well. Internally, all states are obligated to protect their citizens by enacting national laws to criminalize practices of slavery with harsh penalties.[81] Furthermore, the Convention restricts forced labour by requiring humane terms and conditions, such as workers being paid in accordance with the labour market and not being deprived of accessing work where they usually live.[82] Pakistan ratified this Convention on 30th September, 1955.[83]

2.3 The ILO Convention on Forced Labour, 1930 (No. 29)

The International Labour Organization’s Convention on Forced Labour was enacted in June 1930 and brought into force in May 1932. Article 1 requires all parties to the Convention to suppress the use of forced or compulsory labour.[84] Article 2 defines it as, “All work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily.” This treaty further elaborates the obligation of states, pronouncing that forced labour can only be used for public works by the state itself.[85] Additionally, the Convention also highlights the conditions for the use of forced labour to bring it at par with normal labour practices.[86] Pakistan ratified the Convention on 23rd December, 1957.[87]

2.4 ILO Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices similar to Slavery, 1956

At Geneva in September 1956, the ILO Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery was drawn up. It was enforced in April 1957.[88] This document extends and refines the rights present in the Slavery Convention which was primarily aimed at abolishing slavery and slave trade. The Supplementary Convention put forth the definition of debt bondage as, “…the status or condition arising from a pledge by a debtor of his personal services or of those of a person under his control as security for a debt, if the value of those services as reasonably assessed is not applied towards the liquidation of the debt or the length and nature of those services are not respectively limited and defined.[89] Thus, comparison of forced labour and bonded labour along with other such practices was made by the international community and any ambiguity was put to rest.[90] Using bondage as the nomenclature for bonded labour, the Convention elaborated it as labour taken from another whereby an advance debt was used as a means of coercion to keep a person in bondage.[91] Denouncing all such discriminatory practices, the Convention stipulated that no one should be held in slavery or servitude, slavery and the slave trade should be prohibited, practices of bonded labour should be abolished and the state parties to the Convention must criminalize any violation of this principle.[92] Its ratification by Pakistan took place on 20th March, 1958.[93]

2.5 Abolition of Forced Labour Convention, 1957 (No. 105)

The Abolition of Forced Labour Convention, 1957 sets stricter standards for exemptions from forced or compulsory labour and urges states to take effective measures to secure its immediate and absolute eradication.[94] For instance, maneuvering such labour as a means of punishment for holding specific political views, or as punishment for strikes, or as a method of economic development, or as a measure of disciplining labour is prohibited under Article 1.[95] The 1957 Convention was adopted in June 1957 and took effect in January 1959. The Convention’s implementation is supervised by the ILO’s committee of experts. Pakistan ratified it on 15th February, 1960.[96]

2.6 Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, 1999 (No. 182)

Child labour is an issue which transcends all boundaries and the affairs of which need to be treated delicately. Unquestionably, the wellbeing of children should be any country’s top priority. Despite the worst forms of child labour being covered by other international treaties, such as the ILO Convention on Forced Labour, 1930 (No. 29) and the ILO Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices similar to Slavery, 1956, the Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention was adopted in June 1999 and became effective in November 2000. It is supported by the International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC) which helps in the effective implementation of the Convention. Signatory nations to the Convention have obligations to take domestic action to eliminate and prohibit the worst forms of child labour, which consists of of forced or compulsory labour, sexual exploitation, the use of children for illegal activities such as the production of drugs, and work that is capable of harming the health and safety of children.[97] Recognizing that child labour is, to a great extent, caused by poverty, the Convention illuminates the significance of education in eliminating child labour, such as by ensuring access to free basic education.[98] This Convention is part of the 15 core conventions covered under the Generalized Scheme of Preferences (GSP) Regulation. Pakistan became a signatory to it on 11th October, 2001.[99]

2.7 ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work (1998) and The Philadelphia Declaration (1944)

Additionally, the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work (1998) requires member states to submit a status report to the ILO office on the implementation of the core conventions, including the Convention on Forced Labour.[100] The Philadelphia Declaration, which was adopted by the ILO in 1944, places additional pressure on signatory nations to ensure that work is free of exploitation and coercion.[101]

Consequently, numerous international instruments have upheld these principles with consensus on the protection of labour rights from all forms of exploitation. Being a signatory to all of the aforementioned treaties, Pakistan is under an obligation to not only abolish these exploitative practices but also enact laws and penalize offenders. The ratifications required Pakistan to immediately promulgate and implement effective laws against these practices to uphold international obligations, however, it should be noted that domestic law against bonded labour had been executed 34 years after Pakistan had consented to criminalize it.

Moving forward, Chapter 3 will attempt to critically examine the existing national legal regime against forced labour and measure the success of the landmark enactment, the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1992.

Chapter 3: Local Labour Laws

Despite the domestic laws in place, workers belonging to different sectors are not enjoying the rights and privileges guaranteed by international labour standards. This is an indication that Pakistan’s intervention for release and rehabilitation of bonded labourers has remained halfhearted and sporadic in nature,[102] thereby reflecting that Pakistan needs to strengthen its compliance with international labour standards and its obligations under the framework. This chapter will examine the domestic laws governing bonded labour in Pakistan and delineate the level of Pakistan’s compliance by exhibiting how the government’s actions have been in conflict with the Constitution and domestic legislation and how they lack adherence to international conventions.

3.1 The Constitution of Pakistan

Article 11[103] of the Constitution of Pakistan, 1973 prohibits slavery, all forms of forced labour, human trafficking and child labour whilst Article 3[104] obliges the state to eliminate all forms of exploitation. Article 14(1)[105] of the Constitution prohibits violation of dignity of a man and a woman. Article 37(e)[106] puts a duty on the state to ensure “just and humane conditions of work”, and to make provisions which ensure that “children and women are not employed in vocations unsuited to their age or sex and for maternity benefits for women in employment.” Whereas Article 38[107] is more specific and requires for the state to ensure “equitable adjustment of rights between employers and employees, and landlords and tenants.” By keeping a person under bonded labour, other constitutional rights are also infringed.[108]

Despite the constitutional safeguards and treaty ratifications, no legislation to explicitly address the issue of bonded labour was enacted until the Bonded Labor System (Abolition) Act of 1992.

3.2 Assessing the Merits and Demerits of the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1992

For the very first time in Pakistan’s history, a specific law was established to address the crucial issue of forced labour affecting millions of people’s lives. The law was the culmination of a long fight by human rights and labour rights organizations, civil society institutions and people who demanded the bonded labour system be abolished.

As observed in Chapter 1, the issue of bonded labour was highlighted in Pakistan for the very first time in Darshan Masih vs. The State,[109] when brick kiln workers wrote a telegram to the honourable Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Pakistan in 1988, pleading for help and protection from their masters. Resulting in the first public litigation case with respect to bonded labour practices, the Supreme Court took action for the enforcement of fundamental rights of such labourers and declared bonded labour to be unconstitutional. It also stressed the government to introduce legislation to abolish it.[110] Perhaps this was the push needed by Parliament to bring into force legislation which would counteract the bonded labour system.

The legislature finally adopted the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act 1992 which abolished bonded labour, targeted customary arrangements that led to bonded labour, discharged bonded labourers and their families from obligation of bondedness and extinguished any outstanding loans such that no suit could be brought by the creditor for their recovery. Additionally, under this Act, any property forcibly taken by the creditor is to be restored back to the victim; no creditor is to accept any extinguished debt; and bonded labourers detained in civil prisons are to be released.[111] Moreover, criminalizing the offence imposes an imprisonment of up to 5 years and a fine of up to PKR 50,000, or both, for persons who compel anyone into bonded labour.[112]

Another noteworthy provision of the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act 1992 is Section 18,[113] which maintains that bonded labour systems can be considered in non-corporate settings as well. As a result, not only the “company” itself but also the “company owner”, “manager”, “director” or “officer” may be punished while the offence is being committed. The inclusion of this provision is an intelligent step because it acts as a deterrent for individuals associated with different companies who might commit such a crime. This widens the ambit under which forced labour may be committed.

Perhaps after the enactment of the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act 1992, cases brought before the judiciary encompass more importance. For example, in Mushtaq Ahmad Vs Habib Oil Mills (Pvt) Ltd, people who had been removed from service had been reinstated and were performing their dues, but their wages had been withheld since their reinstatement orders were considered to be unlawful. The Lahore High Court ruled that the petitioners’ salaries could not be withheld. Requiring labour from people without paying them was also held to be against Islamic law stipulating that ‘wages must be paid before the sweat of toil dried up.’  Performing duties may be considered forced labour under these conditions, which is prohibited under Article 11 of the Constitution.[114] Similarly, in Muhammad Siddique Vs Mansha, the Lahore High Court ruled in favour of the detainees, declaring that the brick kiln owner could not engage labour after making advance payments under the bonded labour system, which was not only a violation of the fundamental right insured by Article 11 of the Constitution but also an offence under Sections 11 and 12 of the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act 1992 and Sections 371 and 374 of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC).[115]

It is pertinent to note that such judgments do not necessarily suggest that bonded labourers have been given their due rights or are adequately protected under the 1992 Act. The efficacy of the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act 1992 can be gauged by the fact that the Minister of Labour, on June 25, 2004 revealed that in the 12 years since the enactment of the law in 1992, only 23 bonded labour cases had been detected and a fine of only PKR 6,100 had been collected during that period.[116]

It is also worth noting that the Act equates ‘forced labour’ with ‘debt bondage’ and is, therefore, comparatively limited in scope than Article 11 of the Constitution. The Act defines the “bonded labour system” as “the system of forced, or partly forced, labour under which a debtor enters, or has, or is presumed to have, entered into an agreement with the creditor to the effect that…” while Article 11 prohibits all forms of forced labour.

In addition, the 1992 Act does not stipulate any mechanism to facilitate the implementation of law by different levels of government.[117] Moreover, even though the law caters to rights such as the right to employment and the right to freedom of movement, it does not put together the fundamental rights which the Supreme Court has ordered to be associated with forced labour, such as “humane working conditions, protection from exploitation, freedom of association and collective bargaining.”[118]

The amendment to the 1992 Act came as the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 2012. It stipulated that the provisions of the 1992 Act were to only apply in the province of Punjab.[119] Even though the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act of 1992 had abrogated the peshgi system and terminated repayment of outstanding debts, Punjab’s civil society experts informed the National Commission for Human Rights (NCHR) that the provincial government had legalized advances under the Punjab Prohibition of Child Labour at Brick Kilns Act, 2016.[120] This opened room for exploitation yet again since employers would give out loans to their employees and where these employees would be unable to repay the debt, they would be forced to work in order to pay it off. Officials of the labour department opined that the legitimization of advance “in good faith” was aimed at placing restrictions on the limits of loans and ease repayment.[121]

Regardless of ‘rehabilitation’ being an inherent part of the 1992 Act, no mechanism for it has been outlined under the law.[122] The findings of the NCHR team’s visit to Azad Nagar (Hyderabad, Sindh) are appalling, accounting for released workers and their families to be living in sub-human conditions and being deprived of basic amenities, including drinking water, public education and health facilities.[123]

Following the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 2010, new legislation with similar provisions was enacted in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Sindh, namely the the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 2015 and the Sindh Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 2015.[124] Despite the fact that the law criminalizes bonded labour, law enforcement agencies and the government have failed to take steps against duty bearers who have not only been unsuccessful at implementing the law at the local level but have also failed to find a single bonded labour perpetrator.[125] Anti-Slavery International[126] conceives that the government’s efforts at freeing people from bondage are hampered by corruption.[127] However, numerous bonded labourers have been released through the courts under habeas corpus petitions and interventions by NGOs. [128]

In order to meet the demands required by the wording of Section 15 of the 1992 Act,[129] the government subseuqently introduced the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Rules 1995 which were later adopted by the provinces via the enactment of provincial laws. The Rules provided for district vigilance committees (DVCs) to be established to keep a check on the working of the law and create an independent welfare fund which would aid in the rehabilitation of bonded labourers who had been released.[130] The Rules also put forth responsibilities of various implementing agencies under the DVCs.[131] Had these rules not been established, legislation at the provincial level could not have been implemented to combat forced slavery at a larger scale.

After the passing of provincial laws, an official of the Sindh Labour Department admitted to the NCHR that the department had no information pertaining to the functionality of DVCs in any district of Sindh, while an official of the district administration of Hyderabad revealed to the NCHR the failure of the committee to organize a single meeting even though the DVC had been established a year ago. In a meeting with the NCHR, the representatives of civil society, the Sindh Human Rights Commission (SHRC) and the Sindh Commission on the Status of Women (SCSW) proclaimed that no evidence of any active DVC in Sindh could be found.[132]

The Punjab Labour Department has also disclosed to the NCHR that none of the activated DVCs have freed a single bonded labourer and the focus has rather been on issues such as the payment of wages and the ‘special initiative’ of reviewing the provision of services at brick kilns by the provincial government.[133]

According to Anti-Slavery International, human rights organizations have shown grave concern regarding the composition of DVCs because they often comprise personnel who have economic and business interests, thus benefitting from bonded labour.[134]

Officials of the Punjab Labour Department have maintained that the ‘special initiative’ scheme, which was the government’s ‘key intervention’, would ensure surveyance and registration of brick kilns, incentivization towards the enrolment of brick kiln children in schools, skill development and non-formal schooling of adolescents, issuance of CNICs to brick kiln workers and the provision of veterinary services for their livestock.[135] Eventually, the Punjab Government’s “project on elimination of bonded labour in brick kilns of four districts of Punjab” resulted in the establishment of 200 non-formal education centers, enrolling 7894 children, providing veterinary treatment for 2280 workers’ animals and issuing 12,202 CNICs. The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Labour Department has also achieved a number of accomplishments, including providing free legal assistance to over 120 people, assisting in the withdrawal of thousands of children from the workforce in order to enrol them in rehabilitation centers and establishing fixed minimum wage rates for workers in industrial and commercial establishments.[136]

The National Policy and Plan of Action for the Abolition and Rehabilitation of Bonded Labour, considered to be the consequence of a personal initiative of the first worker-friendly minister, the late Omar Asghar Khan, was introduced by the Pakistani government in 2001[137] outlining short and long-term measures for the proposal and withholding PKR 125 million in funding, most of which has remained unutilized.[138] Even though the plan of action involved the creation of a National Steering Committee and the operationalization of DVCs, it failed in its aim.[139] The state’s inadequacy in responding to bonded labour can further be displayed by the fact that a total of 8,530 bonded labourers were released in Pakistan between 1989 and 2006, only 563 of whom were directly released by the government, as reported by Anti-Slavery International.[140]

The government’s attempts at tackling child labour have been equally futile. The National Policy and Plan of Action for Combating Child Labour, devised in 2000 and geared towards the eradication of the worst forms of child labour, has been criticized for being centralized, poorly-funded, over-ambitious and having achieved very little.[141] As a result, very young children still work as bonded labourers and for hazardous work while the minimum working age does not meet international standards. Working children continue to lack protection under the law. Enforcement measures remain weak and labour inspections have become infrequent.

The police, despite being the primary law enforcement entity of the country, has been reluctant in taking any direct action to free bonded labourers.[142] For instance, the police refused to register the case of a 25-year-old male who was tortured by a kiln owner because he asked the owner to pay official wages.[143] The police did indeed release 33 workers from a kiln in Gujranwala, but only on the orders of the Lahore High Court.[144] Moreover, in May 2004, even though 13 haris (peasants) from Hyderabadi camps had been released after strong protest from human rights organizations, the police took no action against the culprits for rekidnapping despite FIRs lodged against them.[145] The situation thus raises questions about the effectiveness and implementation of the 1992 Act.

Besides the legal instruments mentioned above, there are other Pakistani laws which deal with forced labour. The Prevention and Control of Human Trafficking Ordinance 2002 criminalizes economic and sexual exploitation, including slavery and forced labour, penalizing it with a fine and imprisonment which may extend to 7 years.[146] The Pakistan Penal Code 1860 (PPC) also has provisions regarding bonded labour. Section 370 PPC prohibits the buying or disposing of any person as a slave. The punishment for importing, exporting, buying, selling, disposing off, receiving or detaining someone as a slave is maximum 7 years and a fine.[147] For individuals “habitually dealing” with slaves, Section 371, PPC imposes a punishment of fine and at most, 10 years of imprisonment.[148] Lastly, in accordance with Section 374, PPC, whoever compels a person to compulsory labour, without his or her own intent, shall be punished with imprisonment of 5 years maximum, or fine, or both.[149]

3.3 Key International and National Organizations and NGOs

Although not all NGOs have paid heed to the issue of the bonded labour system, most rights-based organizations are against the practice and have highlighted the issue at different levels.

The ILO has been instrumental in the drive against bonded labour in Pakistan. It has not only provided support to local organizations but has also continuously pushed the Pakistani government to take necessary measures to eliminate forced slavery. The Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act 1992 was a result of ILO pressure.[150]

Promoting the Elimination of Bonded Labour in Pakistan (PEBLIP) is a specially designed international programme for Pakistan on bonded labour. It had its first phase in 2007 where the ILO provided technical assistance to the Ministry of Labour (MoL), capacity building for the judiciary and government officials and publication of a series of awareness materials.[151]

A pioneer in civil society interventions is the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) which works for the release and rehabilitation of bonded labourers in agriculture (Sindh) and brick kilns (Punjab). It is the sole organization which has got the largest number of haris released from bondage in the agriculture sector.[152]

The Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (PILER), Karachi is no stranger amongst key national organizations. It has played a cardinal role in policy advocacy, the result of which has been the enactment of the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act 1992 and the National Policy and Plan of Action 2001. PILER has carried out campaigns against bonded labour in addition to 6 research studies wherein it has highlighted the need for the elimination of bonded labour.[153]

In light of the above, it can easily be concluded that the ILO has exerted valuable influence on labour laws in Pakistan.[154] In areas where relevant conventions have not been ratified, labour laws evolve over time with ILO support and persuasion, such as in aspects concerning human resource development, wages and employment policy.[155]

As seen in Chapter 3, Pakistan’s endeavors in abolishing forced labour are appreciable, with the enactment of the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1992 and other material contributions such as the National Plan of Action, PILER and the HRCP. Gross violations of such laws continue to exist due to the lack of adequate measures to curtail the practice and inefficacy on part of the government. Pakistan’s labour laws are in progressive evolution towards international standards while much scope still exists for for improvement and remedying.

Chapter 4: Recommendations and Reforms

At the outset, it is important to ascertain the magnitude of bonded labour and evaluate the success as well as obstacles to the existing abolition framework. As shown in the preceding chapters, at the heart of the bonded labour system lies poverty – such socio-economic and legal prejudices not only drag labourers into this misery but also ensure to keep them there. Any economy tolerating such widespread abuses should be concerning for the international community, particularly because these nations begin to emerge as major players in the global market. Chapter 4 will reevaluate the existing regime and submit recommendations to initiate a coordinated reform process sensitive to the diverse needs of bonded children, women and men, with the aim to strengthen the framework against bonded labour in Pakistan.

Being a contemporary form of slavery, forced labour requires review via legislative reforms to the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act 1992 so that the existing law is fully implemented. It should incorporate, amongst other rights, the right to decent work, the right to adequate standard of living and the right to education. Moreover, the scope of legal coverage provided in Section 2 (c) and (e) should be broadened from bonded labour to forced labour[156] (since ‘bonded’ labour is a narrower a term than ‘forced’ labour), so that it can encompass all types of forced labour, including contemporary forms of modern slavery.

Responsibility should be cast on the government to provide physical protection to freed bonded labourers from harassment by employers and an accountability mechanism for duty bearers should be outlined for non-implementation of the law.[157] Additionally, the penalties stated under the law for each offence in the 1992 Act should be increased since they are not severe enough, while Section 13 should propose punishment for negligence on part of public servants with regard to the identification, freedom and rehabilitation of bonded labourers.[158] Section 17 should also be amended to recognize every offence under the Act as cognizable and non-bailable.[159] Another inclusion in the Act could be to make it mandatory for the District Government to create an independent fund for the rehabilitation and sustenance of freed bonded labourers. Furthermore, Section 374 of the Pakistan Penal Code[160] (in relation to unlawful compulsory labour) should be amended to increase the sentence from 1 year to a maximum of life imprisonment for the most severe violations. [161]

Moreover, the government should ensure appropriate allocation towards the GDP ratio for fully accessible service delivery, including education, health and skill development through institutional arrangements, especially for the marginalized and disenfranchised.[162]

The Department for International Development (DFID), in its 2019 report on modern slavery in Pakistan, has suggested that partnerships with legal aid centers should be explored to maintain a dedicated staff and ensure proper monitoring of bonded labourers by rejuvenating DVCs.[163] This would require coordination of DVCs with the relevant government departments, legislatures, bar councils, professional associations and press bodies.[164]

The DFID has also suggested that partnerships should be developed with organizations prominent in providing services to broader demographics including women, or victims of trafficking. DFID has stressed on providing sustainable solutions to child labour, for instance, by funding of programmes to incentivize access to education (free education being an absolute right as per Article 25A of the Constitution)[165] and vocational skills of child labourers, as well as building on existing structures (like provincial child protection units) to improve the infrastructure available for rehabilitation of vulnerable children.

Even since the topic of forced slavery has caught attention in Pakistan, major steps have been taken to suppress bondage in children. In March 2019, a national Child Labour Survey was launched by the Ministry of Human Rights, with the support of United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), the results of which will be used to generate evidence-based cross-sectoral responses to support the elimination of child labour across Pakistan.[166] Additionally, Anti-Slavery International’s study, a component of which focused on, and evaluated, the Thardeep Rural Development Project’s (TRDP) interventions made through its Child Rights Project (CRPP), had been successful in phasing out bonded children working in carpet looms.[167] It resulted in the weakening of the contractor’s control and allowed affected children to attend school and be reintegrated into normal childhood.[168] In line with this approach, more efforts need to be made by the government and detailed projects need to be carried out as a yearly assessment in other provinces in order to address the bottlenecks on time and reintegrate bonded children.

Agricultural workers remain unguarded due to the continued preservation of feudalism. It is imperative that the state includes agricultural workers in the ambit of formal labour, where absent, so that workers’ rights are adequately protected.[169] The informal sector economy is not formally regularized, therefore, workers in this sector should also be given protection, as promised under the Labour Policy 2010 (Articles 22, 25, 28, 29, 30).[170] Moreover, the relevant legal framework should be urgently reviewed to introduce reforms to legitimize and ensure workers’ rights to association and collective bargaining so that they are not deprived of their fundamental freedoms in both sectors. Minimum wage requirements in legislation should also be actively enforced to ensure that workers are paid a sufficient wage supporting their livelihoods. The minimum wage stipulated should also be revisited according to current standards.[171]

Social protection schemes should be reviewed for the impoverished and vulnerable and a more responsive policy framework should be drawn up. The government should issue appropriate rehabilitation packages to ex-bonded labourers so that they can secure sustainable livelihoods, land, shelter, markets, services and education. Furthermore, a land distribution policy should be introduced to overcome the prevalence of bonded labour in the agriculture sector and workers should be able to rely on subsistence farming.[172] They should be settled in areas where they can easily obtain access to the labour market. Where animals are the only source of revenue for bonded labourers, climatic conditions must also be considered.[173] Workers in agriculture can also be accommodated in informal social protection schemes like zakat and Bait-ul-Mal.[174]

The lack of effective land reforms has birthed distorted patterns of landownership and exploitative production practices, resulting in poor agricultural productivity and leaving small farmers and landless peasants in miserable conditions.[175] The question of land reform should be revisited to increase access to land for the vast population of landless farmers.[176] Additionally, effective governance based on strong political party systems, free of patron clients, is important so that labour is not disempowered by the influence of big landlords.[177] Moreover, the registration of brick kilns could potentially eradicate the practice of bonded labour in this sector. Collection of due taxes will also prove helpful.[178]

The state must acknowledge and recognize social discrimination in the labour market based on caste and should, therefore, intervene to combat this bias and introduce campaigns which promote equality.[179] Political parties should explicitly emphasize the abolition of slavery in their manifestos, along with a commitment to action.[180]

Bonded labourers lack political and social identity which makes it easier for employers to coerce them. It is, thus, vital that they are politically empowered and have proportional representation amongst the working class in policymaking institutions. Importantly, the state should ensure to provide them with documentation, such as CNICs, and facilitate their right to vote.[181]

An accessible support system for workers should also be provided in the form of establishment of suitable complaint cells and hotlines as well as the accessibility and assistance of legal aid committees of provincial bar councils and legal aid centers providing free legal aid, counselling and support services to bonded labourers.[182]

Moreover, key indicators or determinants of bonded labour should be identified via the conduction of a long pending national survey on bonded labour by drawing active support from workers and other human rights organizations.[183]

In order to effectively ensure the implementation of labour standards, sufficient budgetary allocations to labour agencies should be made.[184] Most importantly, the Bonded Labour Fund, established in 2001 as part of the National Policy and Plan of Action remains unutilized. This necessitates the initiation of special projects to utilize these funds, especially towards the rehabilitation of freed bonded labourers.[185]

The importance of labour inspection in ensuring compliance with labour standards cannot be overstated. Inspections of the workplace should be conducted to look for violations of specialized as well as relevant labour laws, such as those relating to forced labour, child labour, social security, wages, working conditions, health and safety, unionisation and collective bargaining, and equal treatment and wage payment for men and women, to ensure that child labour is strictly monitored and prevented.[186]

Capacity building, funding and human resources must be enhanced for inspection procedures and departments. Performance of labor inspectors should be scrutinised and evaluated for effectiveness.[187]

Not only are bonded labourers themselves unaware of their rights but the general public also lacks clarity. Media can play a key role in this regard – local partners should be engaged to develop separate messaging/programming for domestic workers’ rights under provincial laws, while non-governmental organizations (NGOs) should also step forward to perform their role in raising public awareness about domestic workers’ rights. Moreover, the government should launch a “comprehensive social and electronic media campaign to raise public awareness about the plight of labourers.”[188] Raising awareness on long term benefits of education will also prove helpful to restrain bonded child labour. The issue of bonded labour should be included as part of the manual at police training academies so that the police are sensitized as well.[189]

It is equally important for companies to adopt good practices to prevent them from being associated with abuses like bonded labour. For example, they should be cautious in providing loans and advancements to employees so that employees do not feel compelled to work in order to repay a debt.[190] Furthermore, businesses should be familiar with the law and prevailing practices so that in case they have to remove money from the employees’ paychecks, they do it within legal bounds.[191]

Some international agencies are concerned about the issue of child labour and bonded labour in Pakistan. The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) has repeatedly urged the European Union to revoke tariff benefits granted to Pakistan under the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) unless Pakistan reaffirms its commitment to combating forced labour and bonded child labour through its words and actions.[192] If a country fails to meet the necessary labour standards, wealthy countries should limit their purchases from developing countries which lack or do not enforce labour laws. For instance, Burma’s GSP benefits were recently stopped by the European Union due to forced labour in the country’s construction and tourist industries.[193] Pakistan is also advised to improve the status of its labour standards, otherwise it is likely to face similar sanctions.

To condense the foregoing discussion, slavery can only be omitted if there is compliance with the rules and regulations that govern labour standards. Primary focus should be on the strict inspections of DVCs by provincial governments. In addition, the existing legislative framework needs to be reviewed, particularly with regard to the rights associated with labour as well as land laws. Economic and social equality plays a great role in curtailing the forced labour system, therefore, the government should act efficiently in ensuring rehabilitation and reintegration of freed bonded labourers.


The government of Pakistan has always paid lip-service to end bonded labour. Despite many political parties claiming that the eradication of bonded labour is one of their top priorities, the dignity of the downtrodden has not been restored, as delineated through factual data in Chapter 1.

Chapter 2 divulged into international law, concluding that it has built a strong base with regard to labour rights.

It can be deduced from the elaborate evaluation of Pakistani law in Chapter 3 that the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act 1992 and other provincial laws have provided strong recognition to the rights of the victims of the bonded labour system and do tend to comply with international standards set against forced labour. Chapter 3 also uncovers that forced labour remains ubiquitous all over Pakistan as the victims neither have access to the power corridors, nor have the financial or physical capability to knock on the doors of justice. Hence, a strict implementation of the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act 1992 appears difficult since the majority involved in maintaining bonded labour wields considerable political clout. As a result, countering bonded labour requires a holistic approach by:

  • providing a viable alternative to the peshgi system;
  • ensuring economic uplift through the provision of affordable credit and microfinance led techniques;
  • advancing social services, such as health and education benefits; and
  • assimilating freed bonded labourers into society by means of skill development, vocational training, economic inclusion and educational outreach.[194]

It is these practical solutions that will provide justice to the struggles of people like Iqbal Masih, a 12-year-old bonded child carpet-weaver, who was gunned down in 1995, only because he stood up for the rights of other children employed in bonded labour.[195]

Now, it is up to the lawyers, human rights activists and government bodies to take the initiative of implementing the law in letter and spirit. Cases of bonded labour should be highlighted in the press so that the courts can take suo motu actions and create public awareness side by side.[196] Needless to say, Pakistan’s legal framework does not yet serve as an adequate deterrent against bonded labour. Perhaps the standards which have been set operate better in theory only while their working on a practical level may almost be impossible to achieve. Ultimately, it is only through the preceding measures that Pakistan will fulfil its obligation to eliminate all forms of slavery. To that end, the official circles in Pakistan ought to comprehend that their claims to enter the 21st century as a civilized nation or ‘world tiger’ will remain a dream in the wake of the indebted labour in Pakistan.


[1] ‘What Is Bonded Labour?’ ( <> accessed 25 April 2022.
[2] Ibid
[3] Siddharth Kara, Bonded Labor (Columbia University Press 2012).
[4] ‘Profits And Poverty: The Economics Of Forced Labour’ (International Labour Office (ILO) 2014) <—ed_norm/— declaration/documents/publication/wcms_243391.pdf> accessed 25 April 2022.
[5] Ibid
[6] Ibid
[7] Syed Abbas Ahsan, ‘Bonded Labour in Pakistan – Impact, Challenges and Role of Government’ (2020) <> accessed 25 April 2022.
[8] Ibid
[9] Ibid
[10] Syeda Ghulam Fatima and Abdul Qadir, ‘Breaking the Bondage: Bonded Labour Situation and the Struggle for Dignity of Brick Kiln Workers in Pakistan’ (Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES), Pakistan).
Sindh, Punjab, and Baluchistan constitute amongst the four provinces in Pakistan.
[11] ‘E-Journal of International and Comparative Labour Studies’ (, 2019) <> accessed 25 April 2022.
[12] Independence Agriculture in this context, means agriculture on its own, as a separate sector, ‘independently.’
[13] Pakistan Economic Survey 201516 <> accessed 26 April 2022.
[14] Nadeem Malik, ‘Bonded Labour in Pakistan’ (2016) 06 Advances in Anthropology.
[15] ‘In its own right’ (Merriam Webster) <> accessed 26 April 2022.
[16] Ibid at 14
[17] Maliha H. Hussein and others, ‘Bonded Labour in Agriculture: A Rapid Assessment in Sindh and Balochistan, Pakistan’ (International Labour Office (ILO) 2004)
[18] Ibid
[19] Ibid at 14
[20] Ibid
[21] Nicolos Martin, ‘The Political Economy of Bonded Labour in the Pakistani Punjab’ (2009) 43 Contribution to Indian Sociology <> accessed 25 April 2022.
[22] Ibid at 14
[23] Ibid
[24] Ibid
[25] Ibid at 17
[26] Ali Hassan, ‘Slaves, not partners’ (2000) 29 Index on Censorship <> accessed 25 April 2022.
[27] Ibid
[28] Ibid at 17
[29] Ibid
[30] Ibid
[31] Ibid
[32] Ibid
[33] Ibid at 11
[34] ‘2015 Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labour’ ( <> accessed 25 April 2022.
[35] Ibid at 10.
 [36] ‘Forced Labour and Human Trafficking Casebook of Court Decisions (International Labour Organization (ILO) 2009) <—ed_norm/—declaration/documents/publication/wcms_106143.pdf> accessed 26 April 2022.
[37] Ibid at 17
[38] PLD 1990 SC 513
[39] ‘Unfree Labour in Pakistan: Work, Debt and Bondage in Brick Kilns. Pakistan Institute of Labour Education & Research (PILER) (International Labour Office 2004) <—ed_norm/—declaration/documents/publication/wcms_082028.pdf> accessed 25 April 2022.
[40] Ibid at 10
[41] Kate Conradt and Deepika Mehta, ‘STATE OF COMPLIANCE WITH DECENT WORK PRINCIPLES IN PAKISTAN’S BRICK KILN SECTOR’ (Solidarity Center 2021) <> accessed 26 April 2022.
[42] Ibid at 35
[43] Zulfiqar Shah, ‘Effectiveness of Interventions for the Release and Rehabilitation of Bonded Labourers in Pakistan’ (Pakistan Institute of Labour Education & Research (PILER) 2008) <> accessed 25 April 2022.
[44] Ibid
[45] Ibid at 30
[46]‘State of Human Rights in 2011’ (Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) 2012) <> accessed 25 April 2022.
[47] Ibid
[48] Akmal Hussain, ‘Child Workers in Hazardous Industries in Pakistan’ ( <> accessed 25 April 2022.
[49] Ibid at 38
[50] ibid
[51] Ibid at 44
[52] Ibid
[53] Ibid at 10
[54] Ibid at 39
[55] Ibid
[56] Ibid
[57] PLD 1990 SC 513
[58] Zafar Mueen Nasir, ‘A Rapid Assessment of Bonded Labour in the Carpet Industry of Pakistan’ (International Labour Organization (ILO) 2004) <—ed_norm/—declaration/documents/publication/wcms_082029.pdf> accessed 25 April 2022.
[59] Ibid
[60] Ibid
[61] Ibid
[62] Ibid
[63]Effectiveness of the Interventions for the Release and Rehabilitation of Bonded Child Labour in the Carpet Industry of Thar, Sindh’ (Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (PILER) 2007) <> accessed 25 April 2022.
[64] Art Hansen and Pablo Diego Rosell, ‘Children Working in The Carpet Industry of Pakistan: Prevalence and Conditions (2012) <> accessed 25 April 2022.
[65] Moosi Raza, Bonded Labour (Economic and Industrial Publications 1997) <> accessed 25 April 2022.
[66] Ashfaq U Rehman, Ihsan Khan and Khalid Khan, ‘Socio-Economic Impact of Bonded Child Labour in Pakistan (ResearchGate 2019) <> accessed 26 April 2022.
[67] Ibid at 53
[68] Ibid
[69] Ibid
[70] ‘Our Work – Piler’ (, ‘The Pakistan Institute of Labour Education & Research (PILER)’ is “a Non-Government Organization, dedicated to promoting a democratic and effective labour movement for the overall advancement of a socially just and equitable society where the fundamental rights of people are respected and guaranteed.”
[71] Ibid at 39
[72] ‘Asia and the Pacific | Global Slavery Index’ ( <> accessed 26 April 2022.
[73] Beth A. Simmons, Mobilizing for Human Rights (Cambridge University Press 2009).
[74] ‘The Universal Declaration of Human Rights’, Article 4 “No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.”
[75] ‘The International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)’, Article 8 “1. No one shall be held in slavery; slavery and the slave-trade in all their forms shall be prohibited. 2. No one shall be held in servitude. 3.(a) No one shall be required to perform forced or compulsory labour….”
[76] ‘The International Convention on Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR)’, Article 7 “The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to the enjoyment of just and favourable conditions of work which ensure, in particular: (a) Remuneration which provides all workers, as a minimum, with: (i) Fair wages and equal remuneration for work of equal value without distinction of any kind, in particular women being guaranteed conditions of work not inferior to those enjoyed by men, with equal pay for equal work; (ii) A decent living for themselves and their families in accordance with the provisions of the present Covenant; (b) Safe and healthy working conditions; (c) Equal opportunity for everyone to be promoted in his employment to an appropriate higher level, subject to no considerations other than those of seniority and competence; (d ) Rest, leisure and reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay, as well as remuneration for public holidays.”,     Article 10 “The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize that: 1. The widest possible protection and assistance should be accorded to the family, which is the natural and fundamental group unit of society, particularly for its establishment and while it is responsible for the care and education of dependent children…. 2. Special protection should be accorded to mothers during a reasonable period before and after childbirth. During such period working mothers should be accorded paid leave or leave with adequate social security benefits. 3. Special measures of protection and assistance should be taken on behalf of all children and young persons without any discrimination for reasons of parentage or other conditions. Children and young persons should be protected from economic and social exploitation. Their employment in work harmful to their morals or health or dangerous to life or likely to hamper their normal development should be punishable by law. States should also set age limits below which the paid employment of child labour should be prohibited and punishable by law.”
[77] The Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 19 “1. States Parties shall take all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation, including sexual abuse…2. Such protective measures should, as appropriate, include effective procedures for the establishment of social programmes to provide necessary support for the child and for those who have the care of the child…”
[78] Ibid, Article 32 “1. States Parties recognize the right of the child to be protected from economic exploitation and from performing any work that is likely to be hazardous or to interfere with the child’s education, or to be harmful to the child’s health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development. 2. States Parties shall take legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to ensure the implementation of the present article….: (a) Provide for a minimum age or minimum wages for admission to employment; (b) Provide for appropriate regulation of the hours and conditions of employment….”
[79] ‘How the ILO works’ ( <–en/index.htm> accessed 26 April 2022.
[80] The Slavery Convention, Preamble
[81] Ibid at 7
[82] Ibid
[83] ‘United Nations Treaty Collection’ ( <> accessed 25th April 2022.
[84] ‘Convention on Forced Labour’, Article 1
[85] ‘Convention Concerning Forced or Compulsory Labour’, Articles 1,4 and 5 “The convention binds state parties to suppress forced labour immediately and withdraw any concessions that the state may have given to individuals or companies that use forced labour whether for private or public work”
[86] Ibid, Articles 13, 15, 24 and 25 The convention establishes that such practices must follow the labour principles of “working hours”, “rest” and “workmen compensation” along with “state obligation of penalizing violations.”
[87] ‘Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (No.29)’ <> accessed 25 April 2022.
 [88] ‘Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery’ ( <> accessed 26 April 2022.
[89] Ibid, Article 1 “(a) Debt bondage, that is to say, the status or condition arising from a pledge by a debtor of his personal services or of those of a person under his control as security for a debt, if the value of those services as reasonably assessed is not applied towards the liquidation of the debt or the length and nature of those services are not respectively limited and defined; (b) Serfdom, that is to say, the condition or status of a tenant who is by law, custom or agreement bound to live and labour on land belonging to another person and to render some determinate service to such other person, whether for reward or not, and is not free to change his status; (c) Any institution or practice whereby: (d) Any institution or practice whereby a child or young person under the age of 18 years, is delivered by either or both of his natural parents or by his guardian to another person, whether for reward or not, with a view to the exploitation of the child or young person or of his labour.”
[90] Ibid, Preamble
[91] Ibid at 7
[92] Ibid at 80, Article 6
[93] ‘United Nations Treaty Collection’ ( <> accessed 25th April 2022.
[94] ‘Abolition of Forced Labour Convention 1957 (No. 105)’, Article 2
[95] Ibid, Article 1
[96] Ibid, <>
[97] ‘Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention 1999 (No. 182)’, Article 3
[98] Ibid, Article 7. Importantly, the convention also demands for “States to provide necessary and appropriate direct assistance for the removal of children from the worst forms of child labour and for their rehabilitation and social integration.”
[99] Ibid, <>
[100] Ibid at 39
[101] Ibid
[102] Ibid at 58
[103] ‘The Constitution of Islamic Republic of Pakistan 1973’, Article 11 “(1) Slavery is non-existent and forbidden… (2) All forms of forced labour and traffic in human beings are prohibited. (3) No child below the age of fourteen years shall be engaged in a factory or any other hazardous employment …”
[104] Ibid, Article 3 “The State shall ensure the elimination of all forms of exploitation…”
[105] Ibid, Article 14(1) “The dignity of man, and subject to low, the privacy of home, shall be inviolable.”
[106] Ibid, Article 37(e) “The state shall – make provision for securing just and human conditions of work, ensuring that children and women are not employed in vocations unsuited to their age or sex, and for maternity benefits for women in employment.”
[107] Ibid, Article 38(a) “The state shall – secure the well-being of people …. and by ensuring equitable adjustment of rights between employers and employees, and landlords and tenants.”
[108] The Constitution of Islamic Republic of Pakistan provides for other rights as well: Article 14 provides for ‘respect to human dignity’; Articles 15, 17 and 18, respectively, provide for ‘freedom of movement’, ‘freedom of association’ and ‘freedom of entering a lawful profession or occupation.’ Additionally, Article 25 of the Constitution provides for ‘citizens’ equality before the law’; Article 27 provides for ‘protection against discrimination in services’; Article 33 provides for ‘protection from parochial and racial prejudices.’
[109] PLD 1990 SC 513
[110] Ibid at 39, according to PILER, ‘the Court decision was not in accordance with aspirations of human and labour rights activists, rather, it was an agreement between different parties, signed in the shape of a Supreme Court order: Effectiveness of Interventions for the Release and Rehabilitation of Bonded Labour in Pakistan (Pakistan Instutute of Labour Education and Research (2008).
[111] ‘The Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act 1992’, Section 1, Section 2, Section 3, Section 5, Section 8, Section 11, Section 15 <> accessed 25 April 2022.
[112] Ibid, Section 11
[113] Ibid, Section 18 “(1) Where an offence under this Act has been committed by a company, every person who, at the time the offence was committed, was in charge of, and was responsible to, the company for the conduct of the business of the company, as well as the company, shall be deemed to be guilty of the offence and shall be liable to be proceeded against and punished accordingly.  (2)  … where any offence under this Act, has been committed by a company and it is proved that the offence has been committed with the consent or connivance of, or is attributable to, any neglect on the part of any director, manager or other officer of the company, such director, manager or other officer shall be deemed to be guilty of that offence and shall be liable to be proceeded against and punished accordingly.”
[114] 2006 PLC 301
[115] 1997 PLD 428
[116] Ibid at 58, ‘Information provided by the Minister of Labour to the National Assembly in response to a question asked by MNA Shahzadi Umerzadi Tiwana. No further details were provided.’
[117] Instead, under Section 9 of ‘The Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act 1992’, the District Magistrates can be assigned tasks by provincial governments, and they can delegate these powers to subordinate authorities to carry out these provisions.
[118] Muhammad Rafique and Raza Asad, “Towards Abolishing Bonded Labour in Pakistan (National Commission for Human Rights Pakistan (NCHR)” <> accessed 26 April 2022.
[119] Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act 2012, to keep a check on the working of law “In the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1992 … hereinafter referred to as the said Act, in section 1, in subsection (2), for the word “Pakistan”, the words “the Punjab” shall be substituted.”
[120] Ibid
[121] Ibid
[122] Ibid at 96
[123] Ibid
[124] ‘Universal Periodic Review (UPR) Pakistan 2017 Discrimination Against Dalits in Pakistan’ (Pakistan Dalit Solidarity Network, International Dalit Solidarity Network 2017) <> accessed 26 April 2022.
[125] Ibid
[126] ‘Anti Slavery International’ ( <> , ‘Anti-Slavery International is the world’s oldest human rights organization, campaigning for freedom from slavery for everyone everywhere.’
[127] Prasad Upadhyaya, “Poverty, Discrimination and Slavery, The Reality of Bonded Labour in India, Nepal and Pakistan “(Anti-Slavery International 2008) <> accessed 26 April 2022.
[128] Ibid at 113
[129] ‘The Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act 1992’, Section 15 “(1) Vigilance Committees shall be set up at the District level in the prescribed manner, consisting of elected representatives of the area, representatives of the District Administration, Bar associations, press,  [social services organizations, representatives of recognized workers’ organizations, representatives of recognized employers’ organizations; and Public Prosecution and Labour and Human Resource Departments of the Government]. (2)  The following shall be the functions of the Vigilance Committees, namely:- (a)  to advise the District Administration on matters relating to the effective implementation of the law and to ensure its implementation in a proper manner; (b)  to help in the rehabilitation of the freed boned labourer; (c)  to keep an eye on the working of the law; (d)  to provide the bonded labourers such assistance as may be necessary to achieve the objectives of the law (e)  to create awareness amongst the labourers and the employers about their rights and liabilities under this Act …” Section 15A “(1) The Government shall constitute a Provincial Vigilance Committee consisting of such members as the Government may appoint. (2)  The Provincial Vigilance Committee shall: (a) review the implementation of this Act and the action plan relating to abolition of bonded or forced labour and the rehabilitation of persons freed from bonded labour; (b)   monitor the working of the District Vigilance Committees constituted under the Act and the rules made thereunder; and (c) address the concerns of national and international bodies on matters relating to the bonded or forced labour.”
[130] Ibid at 113
[131] Ibid
[132] Ibid
[133] Ibid
[134] Ibid at 122
[135] Ibid at 113
[136] ‘Achievements’ ( <> accessed 26 April 2022.
[137] Ibid at 58
[138] Ibid
[139] Ibid 
[140] Ibid at 13
[141] Ibid at 58
[142] Ibid
[143] Ibid
[144] Ibid
[145] Ibid
[146] ‘The Prevention and Control of Human Trafficking Ordinance 2002’, Section 3(i) “Whoever knowingly plans or executes any such plan for human trafficking into or out of Pakistan for the purpose of attaining any benefit, or for the purpose of exploitative entertainment, slavery or forced labour or adoption in or out of Pakistan shall be punishable with imprisonment which may extend to seven years and shall also be liable to fine…”
[147] ‘Pakistan Penal Code 1860 (PPC)’, Section 370 “Whoever imports, exports, removes, buys, sells or disposes of any person as a slave, or accepts, receives or detains against his will any person as a slave, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to seven years, and shall also be liable to fine.”
[148] Ibid, Section 371 “Whoever habitually imports, exports, removes, buys, sells, traffics or deals in slaves, shall be punished with [imprisonment for life], or with imprisonment of either description for a term not exceeding ten years, and shall also be liable to fine.”
[149] Ibid, Section 374 “Whoever unlawfully compels any person to labour against the will of that person, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to one year, or with fine, or with both.”
[150] Ibid at 58, In 1990 annual ILO conference at Geneva noted that ‘Pakistan had to bring its laws in conformity with convention 29 on abolition of forced labour.’
[151] Ibid
[152] Ibid
[153] Ibid
[154] Bahadar Shah, ‘Impact of ILO Conventions on Labour Laws in Pakistan’ (1995) 48 <> accessed 26 April 2022.
[155] Ibid
[156] ‘Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act 1992’, Section 2 “In this Act, unless there is anything repugnant in the subject or context, —  (c)  “bonded labour” means any labour or service rendered under the bonded labour system;  (e)  “bonded labour system” means the system of forced, or partly forced, labour under which a debtor enters, or has, or is presumed to have, entered into an agreement with the creditor to the effect that,— (i)  in consideration of an advance (peshgi) obtained by him or by any of the members of his family [whether or not such advance (peshgi) is evidenced by any document] and in consideration of the interest, if any, due on such advance (peshgi), or (ii)  in pursuance of any customary or social obligation, or (iii)  for any economic consideration received by him or by any of the members of his family;”
[157] Ibid at 113
[158]Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act 1992’, Section 13 “Punishment for omission or failure to restore possession of property to, bonded labourer.— Whoever, being required by this Act to restore any property to the possession of any bonded labour, omits or fails to do so, within a period of ninety days from the commencement of this Act shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year, or with fine which may extend to [five] thousand rupees, or with both …”
[159] ‘Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act 1992’, Section 17 “(1) Every offence under this act shall be cognizable and bailable.”
[160] ‘Pakistan Penal Code 1860 (PPC)’, Section 374 “(1) Unlawful compulsory labour. Whoever unlawfully compels any person to labour against the will of that person, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to one year, or with fine, or with both…”
[161] ‘1ST FIVE YEAR NATIONAL ACTION PLAN ON BUSINESS AND HUMAN RIGHTS (2021-2026)’ (Ministry of Human Rights) <> accessed 26 April 2022.
[162] Ibid at 113
[163] ‘Modern Slavery in Pakistan (DAI 2019) <> accessed 26 April 2022.
[164] Ibid at 10
[165] ‘The Constitution of Islamic Republic of Pakistan’, Article 25A “Right to education: The State shall provide free and compulsory education to all children of the age of five to sixteen years in such manner as may be determined by law.”
[166] Ibid at 156
[167] Ibid at 163
[168] Ibid at 158
[169] Ibid at 113
[170] ‘Labour Policy 2010’, Article 22 “The majority of workers in Pakistan’s mining industry are employed on a contract basis, often through a somewhat complicated system of sub- contracting making it difficult to identify the actual employer. Mine workers are covered by special legislation that place them outside mainstream labour legislation.” Article 25 “…. In order to guard against occupational hazards and to provide safe working conditions for those employed in this vital sector of the economy, the Government shall enact suitable legislation to ensure health and safety of construction workers and to provide benefits available to other formal sector workers such as Workmen’s Compensation, Social Security, Old-age Pension etc.” Article 28 “… The Government, in the first instance, proposes to extend the coverage of Workmen’s Compensation Act, 1923, to provide compensation in case of injury as well as death to workers of mechanized farms in the rural sector.” Article 29 “Extending labour protection to the country’s large and diverse informal economy is a major challenge. The informal economy supports millions of people across a large geographic area, undertaking a wide variety of low-paid, low-productivity jobs, under working conditions that are frequently harsh, unhealthy, and hazardous. Informal economy workers are not covered by labour laws. Government is planning to make it mandatory for the labour administration to take the initiative to see how it can best reach out to such workers and provide them with basic protection through the provision of advisory services, based on a ‘labour extension’ approach.” Article 30 “Workers in the informal economy, including home workers and domestic workers, will benefit from improved safety and health arrangements, access to social security arrangements, and the payment of minimum wages, where an employee- employer relation is evident. The employment of children less than 14 years will be eliminated, and the employment of those between the ages of 14 and less than 18 years will be strictly controlled, through a combination of stronger legislation and the introduction of labour extension services.”
[171] Ibid at 122
[172] Ibid at 113
[173] Ibid at 122
[174] Ibid at 58
[175] Ibid at 14
[176] Ibid at 13
[177] Ibid at 14
[178] Ibid at 10
[179] Ibid at 113
[180] Ibid at 58
[181] Ibid at 113
[182] Ibid at 10
[183] Ibid
[184] Ibid at 113
[185] Ibid at 58
[186] Ibid at 10
[187] Ibid at 113
[188] Ibid at 158
[189] Ibid at 58
[190] ‘A Handbook for Employers & Business Special Action Programme to Combat Forced Labour (International Labour Organization (ILO) 2015) <—ed_norm/—declaration/documents/publication/wcms_101171.pdf> accessed 26 April 2022.
[191] Ibid
[192] Ibid at 60
[193] Ibid
[194] Ibid at 7
[195] Skipping Stones, ‘Iqbal Masih’ (2022) 7 <> accessed 27 April 2022.
[196] Ibid at 60

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.

Hunya Shahzad

Author: Hunya Shahzad

The writer is an Islamabad based lawyer, currently working as a Corporate Associate. She may be contacted at [email protected]