Saturday, September 12, 2015

Humans of New York in Pakistan (Part 13)

Humans of New York in Pakistan
I want to conclude the Pakistan series by spotlighting a very special change agent who is working to eradicate one of the nation’s most pressing social ills. Over 20,000 brick kilns operate in Pakistan, supported by millions of workers, and the system is largely underpinned by an extremely close cousin of slavery—bonded labor. Throughout rural Pakistan, illiterate and desperate laborers 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, growing larger as time goes on, with no possibility of repayment, until these laborers are condemned to work for the rest of their lives for no compensation. If the laborer 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. (Lahore, Pakistan)

Meet Syeda Ghulam Fatima. Described as a modern day Harriet Tubman, Fatima has devoted her life to ending bonded labor. She has been shot, electrocuted, and beaten numerous times for her activism. Quite literally, she places herself between the workers and their owners. The organization 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 laborer 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 here:

Humans of New York in Pakistan
“Bricks are the primary unit of construction across Pakistan. They are cheaper than concrete so almost everything is made with brick-- especially in rural areas. There are 20,000 brick kilns across the country. We estimate that an average of 40 families work on each of these kilns and that each family is required to make 1000 bricks per day. That means 4.5 million people are living in slavery conditions. And so many of these workers are young children. Often they work all day and are denied education. They work in isolated areas, shielded from the eyes of society and hidden from the protection of the constitution. The laws don’t reach the kilns, so the workers live in constant fear of violence and retribution. The kiln owners are so rich and powerful. Their profits represent nearly 3% of Pakistan’s GDP. They put their friends and relatives in the legislature. They bribe and intimidate the police. It is very dangerous to speak out against them. I’ve been attacked and threatened so many times that I no longer fear death.” 

Humans of New York in Pakistan
“I was walking to court to attend a hearing against a kiln owner when suddenly I was surrounded by a group of men. Everyone ran away except for my brother and me. The men told me that I better drop the case. I told them I would not. Then they knocked me to the ground, pulled back my leg, and shot me in the knee. Afterwards they did the same to my brother. We thought we were dead. I was taken to the public hospital but was turned away. Politicians from the local ruling party had forbidden the doctors from treating me. The assailants were never prosecuted. I had to sell my house to afford treatment at a private hospital. But the brick kiln workers came together to try to help me pay for my treatment. Despite their poverty, they gave 5 to 10 rupees at a time. And they lined up to donate their blood.”

Humans of New York in Pakistan
“I was born into the brick kilns. I started working at the age of 12. The work never ended. We’re expected to make 1,000 bricks per day. We work from 5 AM to dusk. I tried to organize the workers recently to demand fair wages. We held meetings at night, but one of the workers informed on us. The owners called me to the office and beat me. They made the other workers join in. Then they took off all my clothes and tied me to a tree. I begged them not to do it. They left me there for hours. I tried to escape at night. I padlocked my family in the house and I ran into the fields. I came straight to Fatima. Before we could return for my family, the police had helped the owners break into my house. And my daughters were paraded naked in the streets.”

Humans of New York in Pakistan
“My sister fell ill and her medical bills cost 30,000 rupees. My father wasn’t getting his salary on time, so we had no options. I took a loan from the brick kiln and agreed to work for them until it was paid off. Other members of my family did the same. We thought it would only take three months. But when I went to leave, they told me I owed them 90,000 rupees. I couldn’t believe it. They told me I couldn’t leave. It’s like quicksand. They only pay you 200 rupees per 1000 bricks, and it all goes to them, and the debt keeps growing. We are supposed to work from dawn to dusk for six days a week, but we never get the 7th day off. They tell me I owe them 900,000 rupees now. There is no hope for me. Every year they have a market. The brick kiln owners get together and they sell us to each other. Just ten days ago my entire family was sold for 2.2 million rupees.”

*1,000 rupees = $10 

Humans of New York in Pakistan
“My sister’s kidneys were failing. We tried to raise the money to save her. We sold our cattle. We sold our property. We sold everything we had. When we ran out of options, I took a 5,000 rupee loan from the brick kiln. I thought I could pay it back by working for 15 or 20 days. But when I thought it was time to leave, the kiln owners did the accounts. They told me: ‘You lived in our house. You ate our food. You owe 11,000 now. If you have 11,000 rupees, you can go. Otherwise get back to work.’ They worked me harder. I never saw my wages. If I wanted to stop, they beat me. A few months later, my grandfather died. I asked for a few days off to arrange his funeral. ‘You owe 30,000 rupees now,’ they told me. ‘If you have 30,000 rupees, you can leave. Otherwise get back to work.’ Now I owe 350,000 rupees. And my sister died a long time ago. There’s no way out. Soon my debt will pass on to the next generation.”

Humans of New York in Pakistan
Yesterday 40,000 people donated over $1,000,000 in fewer than 12 hours to help Fatima end bonded labor. The fundraiser currently sits at almost $1,400,000. There were no perks offered. No ‘reward levels.’ This was motivated by nothing more than genuine compassion and a desire to empower a woman who’s devoted her life to freeing people trapped in modern slavery. Thank you so much. Fatima has prepared a statement that I will post shortly.

I want to conclude this series with a story that will show you the character of the person you’ve just empowered. This is one of thousands of anecdotes that reveal a person who is more committed to humanity than to her own safety or comfort:

Recently a family trapped in bonded labor got in touch with Fatima. They told her that they could not escape their owners, and that the girls in the family were being sexually abused by the owners. Fatima immediately jumped in her car and drove to the kiln in the middle of the night. She told the family to run. The owners woke up and began to fire guns. The family reached the car, but the youngest girl—only four years old--- had fallen down and been captured.

For three months the child was missing. Fatima went to court and begged for intervention, but the police kept insisting that they’d searched the kiln, and no child could be found. “I couldn’t sleep,” explains Fatima. “Every night I laid in bed and could think about nothing but this young girl in the hands of her brutalizers. I stayed awake all night thinking about how I could rescue her.”

Fatima recruited several other laborers to help her. Dressed in rags, they went to the kiln and pretended to be workers. They spent several days searching. They couldn’t find the girl anywhere. But from the owner’s house, they heard constant crying. They went back to the court and demanded that the house be investigated. The girl was found. But for weeks, she would not eat, talk, or cry. Fatima eventually learned that every time the girl would cry for food, the owner would beat her. 

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