“I wish to wear a school uniform and carry a bag on my shoulder and go to school. I want to make friends and play with them,” says Mochha, a 10-year-old brick kiln worker from Targah Pind, Kasur, a suburban town of Lahore.
Mochha’s friends talk about school being a fun place, but because his father cannot afford to pay his school fee, he works at a kiln along with his family on daily basis. He wakes up early in the morning and goes with his family to collect mud from the fields. He helps his elders mix mud with water and the rest of the day runs their minor errands, like bringing them water and food.
There are thousands of children like Mochha that work on brick kilns. According to Bonded Labour Liberation Front (BLLF) Pakistan, and about 30 per cent workers of these brick kilns are children.”
But there is good news for these under-aged brick kiln workers, for the Punjab government has issued on January 14, 2016, the Punjab Prohibition of Child Labour at Brick Kilns Ordinance 2016, which says brick kiln owners will be kept in prison for six months and will be fined up to Rs500,000 if children are found working on their kilns.
The government has pledged to give Rs1,000 to every school-going child of kiln workers. A restriction has also been imposed on obtaining advance more than six times the salary. If taken, the loan will be mentioned in the contract in the presence of a labour officer.
According to Syed Hasnat Javed, Director Labour department, Punjab, labourers will get advance (peshgi) of six month salaries. More than this means they are being trapped for bonded labour. For example if a labourer prepares 1,000 bricks per day and gets Rs960 he will be able to earn Rs28,800 per month. Hence we can say that a labourer can get Rs172,800 in peshgi or advance. This agreement will be signed by both the owner and labourer, and its copy will be submitted to the labour inspector, he adds.
The ordinance states that if a child over five years old is found at a brick kiln during school timings, he shall, until the contrary is proved, be deemed to have been employed, engaged or permitted to work at the brick kiln.
Committees comprising DCOs, DPOs and ACs in every district are raiding brick kilns and announcing fines and penalties.
Syeda Ghulam Fatima, Secretary BLLF, welcomes the ordinance. She says that the parents of under-aged brick kiln workers will ultimately send them to schools if owners pay the notified Rs962 per 1,000 bricks to workers. “They get around Rs500 per 1,000 bricks presently. When their income is nearly doubled they will not need their children’s support in work,” she says.
Muhammad Shoaib Khan Niazi, President All Pakistan Brick Kiln Owners Association, is concerned about the ordinance. According to him, since the implementation of the ordinance on January 17, 2016, 120 FIRs have been lodged against brick kiln owners and 30 owners have been arrested. “Actually, bureaucracy is under the pressure of CM Punjab Shehbaz Sharif,” he says.
Niazi says as kiln workers live at their workplace children will naturally be spotted there, and the owner will be punished. “The CM should have made boarding schools for children on emergency basis. Incentives of uniforms, free education and Rs1,000 for children of brick kilns are only seen in advertisement but not in reality,” he adds.
Ali Sarfraz, Secretary Labour Punjab, rejects the allegation levelled by Niazi. He says they are not under any pressure, and till Jan 19 had made 368 inspections across Punjab. He claims that over 90 per cent of children at brick kilns in Punjab have been enrolled in schools across the province.
But Niazi disagrees. He says, “For the past 70 years, the state was sleeping, but the ordinance was suddenly passed when the time for review of GSP-plus status came. “If pushed beyond limit we will go on a countrywide strike. We are the main stakeholders but we were not taken on board while preparing the ordinance. The CM is not ready to meet us and listen to our reservations,” he says.
Raja Ashfaq Sarwar, Minister of Labour, Punjab agrees that there was pressure from international community to stop child labour but the government was already planning to tackle it. He does not respond when asked about the non-implementation of notified wages and says “we must talk about it some other time.”
Nabeela Ghazanfar, spokesperson for IG Punjab, Mushtaq Sukhera says on his behalf, “Punjab Police will offer full support to the state to implement this ordinance. No bogus FIR has been lodged against any owner of brick kiln. Each FIR was lodged on the recommendations of the concerned district inspection committees.”
Ashraf Masih, a worker at a brick kiln at Kasur, says this ordinance will create problems for all workers. “Children help us prepare clay. Stopping them from work will increase our workload. We will not be able to prepare bricks in time. In case of failure, workers will be tortured by the owners,” he says.
“The owners will never let our children study because they will lose their labour. Our children earn more than what the Punjab government is offering them to attend school,” he adds.
One more objection against the ordinance is that it imposes restrictions on taking loans without offering alternative. Brick kiln workers need loans for medical treatment, marriages, to run kitchen during monsoon etc when they lose work. There were government and NGO plans to give workers alternative skills to earn money during off seasons but not much progress has been made.
Ghulam Fatima of BLLF says that it is sad that only 8,000 brick kiln workers are registered with the Punjab Social Security department for medical facilities, health insurance and other incentives like marriage grant, death grant and others. All others have to seek loans or even sell kidneys to meet emergency expenses.
Dawood Abdullah, Director Headquarter Labour department, says that 24,000 children were identified as out of school in Punjab. Out of them, 21,000 have been enrolled in government schools and institutes of non-formal education. The government will provide these children cash incentives and transport soon to get the desired results, he adds.