In a rundown meeting room comprising an old wooden table and broken chairs sits a simple-looking and straightforward Syeda Ghulam Fatima. She is the general secretary of Bonded Labour Liberation Front (BLLF).
But wait. She has already been introduced to the world in more powerful words by the globally-known photo journalist Brandon Stanton, who blogs and publishes his work under the name of Humans of New York (HONY): “Meet Syeda Ghulam Fatima. Described as a modern day Harriet Tubman, Fatima has devoted her life to ending bonded labour. She has been shot, electrocuted, and beaten numerous times for her activism. Quite literally, she places herself between the workers and their owners. The organisation she leads, the Bonded Labour Liberation Front, is small but determined. It is working to set up Freedom Centers throughout rural Pakistan so that every bonded labourer has access to advocacy and legal aid. Fatima operates on a very small budget. So as we learn her story over the next few days, anyone wishing to help empower Fatima can donate to Bonded Labour Liberation Front…”
Stanton concluded his Pakistan visit highlighting Fatima’s work and appealing to the world to help her eradicate bonded labour in Pakistan. What followed after this call for help was phenomenal to say the least.
In an unexpectedly extraordinary response, people from all over the world collectively donated more than 1.2 million USD to the BLLF in a matter of 48 hours or so. “This was motivated by nothing else than genuine compassion and a desire to empower a woman who has devoted her life to freeing people trapped in modern slavery,” says Stanton, explaining the reason for his appeal on his Facebook page timeline.
What he had stated earlier in the post to generate the response was this: “Throughout rural Pakistan, illiterate and desperate labourers are tricked into accepting small loans in exchange for agreeing to work at brick kilns for a small period of time. But due to predatory terms, their debt balloons… If the labourer dies, the debt is passed on to his or her children. The practice is illegal. But due to the extreme power and wealth of brick kiln owners, the law is often unenforced in rural areas. It is estimated that well over one million men, women, and children are trapped in this modern feudalist system.”
He was spot on. Sitting in her office, Fatima says she and her friends had not hoped for such a huge grant. “We took that photographer as a routine visitor and appreciated him for highlighting the cause with no expectation. Our mission is not to get huge grants but continue to highlight bonded labour.”
Forty-seven-year-old Fatima, daughter of a trade-unionist and small-scale railway employee Syed Deedar Hussain, was motivated by her father. Earlier, as a college student, she used to go with her friends to the kilns to teach the workers voluntarily. In 1991, at one kiln where the owner detained her colleague, they picked up a fight with the owner that led to a big dispute ending up in lodging of police cases and firing at her family in 1991.
“My brothers and I were going home when they fired on us. My brothers were badly injured. One brother was disabled forever while I received bullets in my legs,” she recalls the bad day of 1991 that led her to commit herself to bonded labour. “My legs still can’t bear my weight. I am unable to move freely,” Fatima says, talking of the days when she was attacked, beaten, harassed.
“For me, red brick represents blood — of the kiln worker who makes it. Bricks make finest buildings but its maker earns nothing.”
According to Fatima, the total estimated number of kiln workers in Pakistan is around 4.5 million while the total number of kilns is not less than 20,000. In Punjab alone, the largest province of the country, there are around 2.5 million kiln workers and the number of kilns not less than 10,000.
The movement against bonded labour was started by left-leaning activists in this city. BLLF operates from an old building named Freedom Campus for Bonded Labour at Lawrence Road Lahore, in the same premises as the ideological magazine Viewpoint. It has a history of almost four decades. It started working under the name Bhatta Mazdoor Mahaz (BMM), established by a group of trade unionists. It was renamed BLLF after the September 18, 1988 landmark judgement of Supreme Court of Pakistan which prohibited bonded labour. The judgement was a result of public interest litigation by Darshan Masih, a bonded labour victim and the main petitioner who, through a telegram, urged the court to take up the issue.
The 1988 judgement also proved instrumental in moving Kailash Satyarthi, noted Indian rights activist who shared Nobel Peace Prize with Malala Yousfzai, to help one of the co-founders of BMM to look at the larger picture of bonded labour including carpet weaving and other sectors.
The root cause of bonded labour in Pakistan is paishgi (advance payment). “It is this paishgi because of which the never-ending exploitation of bonded labour begins,” says Fatima. “Until and unless the state does not strictly applies the law of minimum wage in all sectors, particularly on kiln workers and tenants, this issue is not going to be addressed properly.”
Fatima feels the realisation to get freedom and rights is gradually growing among the bonded labour because of this long struggle of a number of local and global groups. “Challenges also increase with awareness as owners of kilns and landlords start applying different tactics when workers raise voice for their rights.” Fatima believes that lack of political will, bureaucratic and administrative hurdles (mainly from police), and disinterested parliamentarians are the major reasons behind the exploitation of bonded labour “despite the laws and policies”.
BLLF relies on membership fee, monthly subscriptions, donations and grants. The organisation aims to utilise its money, property and income solely to realise the objectives of the organisation. No portion of its money shall be paid or transferred directly by way of dividend, bonus or profit to the members of the board of the organisation. BLLF Pakistan aims to empower bonded labour and give them access to advocacy and legal aid. The mission of BLLF is to eradicate bonded labour, injustice, illiteracy, inequality and poverty in Pakistan.
BLLF came to the notice of Stanton through a documentary aired on HBO last year. Fatima received a call from Stanton’s team this July. On his arrival, he also visited some kilns in the suburbs of Lahore.
The huge public money BLLF has been promised, would come to them through an account of HONY. “There are no conditions on how to use it but we assure everybody that these donations would be spent for the cause in a transparent manner. We have been criticising government for its badly-implemented projects to eradicate bonded labour and now when we have huge money we are open to any question regarding utilisation of this grant,” says Fatima.
She runs the organisation with only one regular paid staff and her husband Mehar Safdar who is the programme officer. The staff is hired on a project basis while there are hundreds of volunteers across the province. The organisation is supervised by an executive committee.
“We want to spend this amount on rehabilitation, counselling and empowerment of kiln workers in Pakistan,” says Fatima. “The response of people across the world highlights the importance of this subject — of how much this form of labour is hated and rejected. This message is an endorsement of our view. This response is a loud and clear message to Pakistan, its government, administrative machinery, brick kiln owners and civil society.” She is utterly thankful to HONY and people across the world who have helped in any form with the victims of bonded labour.
Influenced by late Tahira Mazhar Ali Khan, a prominent women rights activist who donated her husband’s property where the Freedom Campus or the operational office of BLLF is housed, Fatima appears a strong and brave woman. She seems determined about her goals after getting this extraordinary response from the world and confidently claims that now BLLF should be able make significant progress towards eradicating bonded labour.