ISLAMABAD — In Pakistan today, more than 2 million people, including children, work as bonded laborers, a system the United Nations describes as modern-day slavery.
An example of bonded labor can be seen in the life of brick-makers who use their children as collateral for debts to their employers.
Mohammad Ali has been making bricks since he was a child. Like his father before him, Ali’s entire family works to repay money he has borrowed from the factory owner.
They get paid roughly $6 per thousand bricks.
“They take a third of what we earn," he said. "They give us some, and they take some for themselves. But this debt never ends, because sometimes we get sick. Sometimes we need it for electricity. Sometimes we take a day off. Then we have to borrow more money. So it never gets paid off.”
Ali has tuberculosis. If he dies early, his children will spend their lives working off his loan.
The United Nations says these are modern-day slaves, trapped in a cycle of debt they barely understand.
Francesco d’Ovidio, head of the U.N.’s International Labor Organization in Islamabad, says international companies are threatening to leave Pakistan if this practice of bonded labor is not abolished.
“So, in addition to the human rights angle, there is also an economic reason to improve the compliance with these standards, and I must say that Pakistan in particular is feeling this threat very seriously, is taking this threat very seriously,” he said.
Zareena Bibi has been working in different brick kilns since she was eight. Extreme poverty means all her children work too.
“My children were small, and I beat them in order to make them work harder to earn money to feed ourselves," she said. "Then, one day, I cut my foot and bled a lot, but I had many children and I thanked God that at least we would have food that way.”
Until recently, these workers and families did not even have birth or death certificates, or identification cards. Technically, they didn’t even exist.
Choudhry Faiz Rasoul is one of the rare factory owners getting his workers social security cards, giving them access to state welfare programs. But he says the workers' inability to budget is part of the problem.
“The government wants us to write off their existing loans. This will destroy everything," he said. "You write off their loans today, and tomorrow they will again start borrowing. They will leave me, go to another kiln, borrow more money, then come back to me, and borrow again, and the whole industry will be destroyed.”
Pakistan’s economy relies heavily on cheap labor. Extreme poverty, illiteracy and a lack of skills guarantee that workers and their families readily provide such labor, even if that means they are bonded for life.