Twelve-year-old Salamat Ahmed works up to 14 hours a day in a brick factory in Sheikhupura, about 100km north of Lahore. His hands bear burn marks from placing bricks in the kiln.
"I have been doing this work since I was six. Even when I was younger, I helped my mother. We 'belong' to the brick kiln owner and cannot leave this place," Salamat told IRIN, before he was pulled away by his older brother, Karamat, who said: "We don't want any trouble."
Despite his arduous life, Salamat, who has never been to school, wears a big grin across his face. He dreams of becoming a cricket player, or riding his own motorcycle.
Salamat, his parents and three siblings, are among the 1.7 million bonded labourers that the International Labour Organization (ILO) says exist in Pakistan.
Despite laws banning bonded labour, including the Bonded Labour (Abolition) Act of 1992, forced labour, often through debt bondage, remains widespread.
"What happens is that employers, in this case the brick kiln owners, advance sums of money to the labourers to meet urgent needs. Because the wages paid to the labourers are so low, the loans cannot be paid back even over many years, and the workers cannot leave the kiln as they are indebted to the owners," said I.A. Rehman, director of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP).
Over half a million bonded labourers are working at brick kilns, says a 2003 study by the Karachi-based non-governmental organisation (NGO), PILER (Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research). The study, carried out at the request of the ILO, concluded that nearly half these workers are women or children.
Photo: Kamila Hyat/IRIN
|Of the country’s 6,000 brick kilns, the vast majority are in Pakistan’s populous Punjab|
6,000 brick kilns
The report said family labour by children aged 10-14 producing unbaked bricks, and of male juveniles (14 -17 years) in other work groups, is a central part of work at the 6,000 or so brick kilns across the country, 5,000 of them in the Punjab.
When female children are not working at the kiln, they will be doing domestic chores, leaving other family members free to manufacture bricks. The advances families are able to get are most often larger when more members work at the kiln, and this promotes the use of children as a labour force.
Most children engaged at kilns do not go to school and have never regularly attended one.
"I sent my daughter to school for three months, but we need her help to make ends meet," said Wazir Khan, 32, a labourer at a brick kiln in the Batapur area of Lahore, close to the Indian border. Wazir and his family are Afghans, and are paid piece rates, i.e. depending on the number of unbaked bricks they can produce in a day.
With the help of his daughter, Azma, 10, and two sons, aged 8 and 7, Wazir and his wife make enough bricks to earn around US$50 a month.
"Any less, and we would starve," Wazir said.
Over the past three or four years NGOs and social welfare organisations have persuaded brick kiln owners to set up small schools for children working for them.
More and more such schools are being set up, and several dozen are now operating, but the fact remains that most are inadequately housed in tiny rooms or sheds.
The standards of education they can offer are limited - and for the most part they depend for their survival entirely on the goodwill of their brick kiln owner.
Yet even these limited facilities offer children, who usually attend them for a few hours a day, some semblance of opportunity, some ray of hope. They also offer an escape from the risks and hardship of life at the kiln, where injuries while using sharp implements to carve out mud, or from the hot ovens, are not uncommon. In most cases, the labourers, including the children, have no access to even rudimentary first aid.
"We must work here because we are poor. But now I go to school and one day I will be an educated man who can do something else," says Dilawar, 12, who has worked at a kiln in Lahore, where his family is bonded, for three years.