FEBRUARY 1: Pakistan has recently passed laws greatly limiting child labor and indentured servitude—but those laws are universally ignored, and some 11 milion children, aged four to fourteen, keep that country’s factories operating, often working in brutal and squalid conditions
No two negotiations for the sale of a child are alike, but all are founded on the pretense that the parties involved have the best interests of the child at heart. On this sweltering morning in the Punjab village of Wasan Pura a carpet master, Sadique, is describing for a thirty-year-old brick worker named Mirza the advantages his son will enjoy as an apprentice weaver. “I’ve admired your boy for several months,” Sadique says. “Nadeem is bright and ambitious. He will learn far more practical skills in six months at the loom than he would in six years of school. He will be taught by experienced craftsmen, and his pay will rise as his skills improve. Have no doubt, your son will be thankful for the opportunity you have given him, and the Lord will bless you for looking so well after your own.”
Sadique has given this speech before. Like many manufacturers, he recruits children for his workshop almost constantly, and is particularly aggressive in courting boys aged seven to ten. “They make ideal employees,” he says. “Boys at this stage of development are at the peak of their dexterity and endurance, and they’re wonderfully obedient—they’d work around the clock if I asked them.” But when pressed he admits, “I hire them first and foremost because they’re economical. For what I’d pay one second-class adult weaver I can get three boys, sometimes four, who can produce first-class rugs in no time.”
The low cost of child labor gives Sadique and his fellow manufacturers a significant advantage in the Western marketplace, where they undersell their competitors from countries prohibiting child labor, often by improbable amounts. Not surprisingly, American and European consumers are attracted to low-price, high-quality products, and imports of child-made carpets from Pakistan have trebled in the past two decades. Pakistan’s carpet makers have satisfied this surging demand by expanding production at existing factories and opening new ones wherever they can. To maximize their returns, virtually all these factories employ children, and an increasing number do so exclusively. Somewhere between 500,000 and one million Pakistani children aged four to fourteen now work as full-time carpet weavers. UNICEF believes that they make up 90 percent of the carpet makers’ work force.
Sadique delivers his speech at volume and accompanies it with an assortment of gestures—nods, waves, raised eyebrows—that are as theatrical as they are out of place in his shambles of a workshop. He concludes with a smile and, just in case Mirza does not appreciate his generosity, adds a wistful coda: “I wish my father had given me such an opportunity.” Mirza seems doubtful, perhaps because his son is seven years old, perhaps because he has seen too many of his neighbors’ children suffer through similar opportunities. But he returns Sadique’s smile and says in a faint voice that he hopes Nadeem will learn enough to work one day as a journeyman weaver or, better still, to open a workshop of his own.
Whatever misgivings Mirza has at the moment are overshadowed by his poverty, which is extreme and worsening. He supports a family of five by working at a nearby kiln, molding bricks by hand for up to eighty hours a week. The work pays poorly at the best of times, and on occasion it does not pay at all. Three weeks earlier a monsoon destroyed several thousand unfired bricks that had been left drying on factory grounds. The kiln owner held the workers accountable for the damage and refused to pay them for the two weeks they had spent making the bricks. The “fine,” as the owner called it, proved ruinous. Already months behind on their rent and in debt to the village merchants, Mirza and his wife concluded that the only way to avoid eviction was to bond their eldest child to one of the district’s manufacturers. Sadique was their first choice: he was prosperous, his workshop was near their home, and he was rumored to have an urgent need for child laborers, which they believed would translate into a high price for Nadeem.
They were half right. The workshop has a perpetual need for children, but Sadique is unwilling to pay a premium for them. For that matter, he is unwilling to pay market rates. Having dispensed with the niceties, he offers Mirza 5,000 rupees ($146) for five years of his son’s labor. It’s a paltry sum—roughly two months’ earnings for an adult weaver. Mirza was expecting an offer at least three times as high. “Business is off this year,” Sadique says, by way of preempting Mirza’s objections. “When things improve, I may be able to give you another two or three hundred. Many fathers would be glad to get half this amount.”
Mirza is distressed. He is a small man, stooped and wasted from his years at the kiln, his skin and tunic flecked with soot. Like most laborers, he is acutely aware of his caste, and in the presence of those whom he deems his betters is deferential to the point of abjectness. Bravely he asks Sadique for another thousand rupees, though he couches the request in the most self-deprecating terms he knows. “Sir, my family’s survival depends on your charity. You will always be remembered in our prayers as our savior from beggary and destitution.” To his relief, Sadique agrees at once, extending a manicured hand with a speed that suggests he was prepared to pay more and got a bargain. In any event, he can afford to be generous. The money he offers Mirza, called a peshgi, will be paid in installments, and he will deduct from it all costs associated with Nadeem’s maintenance and training. Many of the deductions are contrived and inflated. Parents are charged for their children’s food and tools, the raw materials they use, the errors they make, the amount of time the master spends “educating” them. Throughout Pakistan parents consider themselves fortunate if at the end of their child’s service the master has paid them one third of the peshgi.
Mirza is unaware of these deductions and, eager to make his escape, does not ask questions that might complicate the proceedings. He consummates the deal by shaking Sadique’s hand (after wiping his own on his tunic) and accepting from him a first installment of 200 rupees. The parties are bound only by their word: no contracts are signed; no witnesses are present. “Your boy now belongs to me,” Sadique says as Mirza pockets the banknotes. “Please understand that so long as he works under my roof he is answerable only to me. Inform him that the needs of my shop take priority over those of his family, and he must do all he can to please me. If he does not, we will all be disappointed, him most of all.” Mirza thanks the master for his kindness, bows low, and runs off to relay this information to his son.
An Inexhaustible Labor Pool
Child labor has assumed epidemic proportions in Pakistan. Statistics are unreliable, but the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) last year estimated the number of Pakistani working children to be “realistically in the region of 11-12 million.” At least half these children are under the age of ten. Despite a recent series of laws prohibiting child labor and indentured servitude, children make up a quarter of the unskilled work force, and can be found in virtually every factory, every workshop, every field. They earn on average a third of the adult wage. Certain industries, notably carpet making and brick making, cannot survive without them. One World Bank economist maintains that Pakistan’s economic viability correlates with the number of children in its factories. The child labor pool is all but inexhaustible, owing in part to a birth rate that is among the world’s highest and to an education system that can accommodate only about a third of the country’s school-age children. Each year millions of children enter the labor force, where they compete with adults—often even with their parents—for what little work is available. In many regions the surplus of cheap child labor has depressed the already inadequate adult wage to the point where a parent and child together now earn less than the parent alone earned a year ago. As long as children are put to work, poverty will spread and standards of living will continue to decline.
To be sure, child labor is an institution throughout the Third World, and its incidence has been increasing in countries that are usually described as advanced. The worldwide population of children under fourteen who work full-time is thought to exceed 200 million. But few countries have done less to abolish or to contain the practice than Pakistan. And fewer still have a ruling class that opposes workplace reform and human-rights initiatives as vigorously. Given its relative prosperity, its constitutional prohibition against child labor, and its leaders’ signatures on every UN human- and child-rights convention, Pakistan’s de facto dependency on child labor is troubling and to its critics inexcusable.
“Inaction speaks louder than words,” says I. A. Rehman, the director of the HRCP. “This government is in continuous violation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and has consistently refused to enforce those very laws it enacted to protect its most vulnerable citizens. We have far more in the way of resources and legal remedies than China, India, and Indonesia, and we do far less for our young than they. The problem is lack of political will. The problem is greed.”
The median age of children now entering the Pakistani work force is seven. Two years ago it was eight. Two years from now it may be six. In the lowest castes, children become laborers almost as soon as they can walk. Much of the nation’s farmland is worked by toddlers, yoked teams of three-, four-, and five-year-olds who plough, seed, and glean fields from dawn to dusk. On any given morning the canal banks and irrigation ditches in rural villages are lined with urchins who stand no taller than the piles of laundry they wash for their wealthier neighbors. Even the world-class industries of Islamabad, the modern capital, are staffed in large part by children and adolescents; politicians traveling to the National Assembly can’t help noticing the ragged youths entering and exiting the brick factories, steel mills, and stone-crushing plants at all hours of the day and night. These children work with a minimum of adult supervision. An overseer comes by periodically to mark their progress and to give them instructions or a few encouraging blows, but for the better part of the workday they are left to themselves. “Children are cheaper to run than tractors and smarter than oxen,” explains one Rawalpindi landowner. He prefers field hands between seven and ten years old, “because they have the most energy, although they lack discipline.”
In rural areas children are raised without health care, sanitation, or education; many are as starved for affection as for food. As soon as they’re old enough to have an elementary understanding of their circumstances, their parents teach them that they are expected to pay their way, to make sacrifices, and, if necessary, to travel far from home and live with strangers. “When my children were three, I told them they must be prepared to work for the good of the family,” says Asma, a Sheikhupura villager who bonded her five children to masters in distant villages. “I told them again and again that they would be bonded at five. And when the time came for them to go, they were prepared and went without complaint.”
Bonding is common practice among the lower castes, and although the decision to part with their children is not made lightly, parents do not agonize over it. Neither, evidently, do the children, who regard bonding as a rite of passage, the event that transforms them into adults. Many look forward to it in the same way that American children look forward to a first communion or getting a driver’s license. They are eager to cast off childhood, even if to do so means taking on adult burdens. Irfana, a twelve-year-old schoolgirl who spent four years as a brick worker before she was freed by an anti-slavery organization, remembers feeling relieved when her father handed her over at age six to a kiln owner. “My friends and I knew that sooner or later we’d be sent off to the factories or the fields. We were tired of doing chores and minding infants. We looked forward to the day when we’d be given responsibilities and the chance to earn money. At the time work seemed glamorous and children who worked seemed quite important.”
She soon learned otherwise. “For the masters, bonded children are a commodity. My master bought, sold, and traded us like livestock, and sometimes he shipped us great distances. The boys were beaten frequently to make them work long hours. The girls were often violated. My best friend got ill after she was raped, and when she couldn’t work, the master sold her to a friend of his in a village a thousand kilometers away. Her family was never told where she was sent, and they never saw her again.”
Early in this decade the Pakistan National Assembly enacted two labor laws meant to curb such practices. The first, The Employment of Children Act of 1991, prohibited the use of child labor in hazardous occupations and environments. The second, The Bonded Labor Act of 1992, abolished indentured servitude and the peshgi system. As progressive as these laws were, the government failed to provide for their implementation and enforcement. It also neglected to inform the millions of working children and indentured servants that they were free and released from their debts. “We prefer to leave enforcement to the discretion of the police,” says a Ministry of Labor official. “They understand best the needs of their community. Law is not an absolute. We must expect a certain flexibility on the part of those who enforce it. Could this sometimes mean looking the other way? Absolutely.”
A Diminutive Entrepreneur
farther authorities are from a major city in Pakistan, the less likely they are to pursue violators of the child-labor laws. To leave Lahore, the nation’s intellectual and commercial center, is to enter a land populated and run by children. The change is as abrupt as it is extreme. The roads just beyond the city limits are congested with donkey carts, all of them driven by teamsters of eight or nine. Boys seem to have a monopoly on roadside attractions: gas stations, auto-repair centers, restaurants. When I pull into the Star Petroleum station on the Ferozpur Road, five miles from Lahore, three boys rush out of the garage to service my car. They are twelve, eight, and seven, and wear uniforms intended for men twice their size. The eldest has rolled up his pants and sleeves, but his colleagues helplessly trail theirs in the dirt. While the older boys fill my tank with a rusted hand pump, the youngest climbs onto the hood and cleans the windshield with a dangling sleeve. When I pull away, the boys rush back to the garage and to a diesel engine they are attempting to rebuild between fill-ups. No adults are visible on the premises.
Adults are also in short supply at the crossroads markets that provide villagers with everything from prayer mats to surgical instruments. Twelve of the fifteen stands at the Tohkar Road market are managed by children under fourteen. The fruit stand is run by a tyrannical eight-year-old boy and his four- and five-year-old sisters. The boy spends his morning slicing melons with a knife half his size, while behind him the girls sort cartloads of fruit. At the next stall two eleven-year-old cousins fashion sandals out of discarded tires. They work from dawn to dusk six days a week, and make more than 1,200 pairs each week. Behind the last stall another boy is struggling to unload a stack of carpets from his donkey cart. He weighs seventy pounds. The twenty-odd carpets in his cart weigh sixty pounds apiece, and it takes him ten minutes of yanking, hefting, and cursing to get each one into the stall. The stall’s proprietor watches him with interest, but his concern is strictly for the merchandise. He is a tall, heavyset forty-year-old who looks as if he could unload the entire cart in fifteen minutes without breaking a sweat. But he makes no move to help the boy, and seems to regard his exertions as routine. So do the passersby. And, for that matter, so does the boy.
His name is Faiz. A lively nine-year-old, he has been working as a hauler since he was six. He attended school for two years, but dropped out when an elderly neighbor offered him an advantageous lease on the cart and donkey. He runs the business alone, and spends his days scrounging for hauling jobs and shuttling produce, scrap metal, and crafts around six villages. He averages sixty miles a week—no easy feat with a donkey that trots at three miles an hour. “The work is painful and the days are long, but I earn enough to feed myself and tend the donkey,” Faiz says with an entrepreneur’s pride. The key to his success is underbidding the competition; his rates are a tenth of his predecessor’s. “It is reasonable that people should pay me less. My equipment is the same as an adult’s, but I am small and have a fraction of an adult’s strength. I take longer to make deliveries, so I must charge less. My hope is that the more goods I move, the stronger I will get and the more I can charge.”
Soon after I arrived in Pakistan, I arranged a trip to a town whose major factories were rumored to enslave very young children. I found myself hoping during the journey there that the children I saw working in fields, on the roads, at the marketplaces, would prepare me for the worst. They did not. No amount of preparation could have lessened the shock and revulsion I felt on entering a sporting-goods factory in the town of Sialkot, seventy miles from Lahore, where scores of children, most of them aged five to ten, produce soccer balls by hand for forty rupees, or about $1.20, a day. The children work eighty hours a week in near-total darkness and total silence. According to the foreman, the darkness is both an economy and a precautionary measure; child-rights activists have difficulty taking photographs and gathering evidence of wrongdoing if the lighting is poor. The silence is to ensure product quality: “If the children speak, they are not giving their complete attention to the product and are liable to make errors.” The children are permitted one thirty-minute meal break each day; they are punished if they take longer. They are also punished if they fall asleep, if their workbenches are sloppy, if they waste material or miscut a pattern, if they complain of mistreatment to their parents or speak to strangers outside the factory. A partial list of “infractions” for which they may be punished is tacked to a wall near the entrance. It’s a document of dubious utility: the children are illiterate. Punishments are doled out in a storage closet at the rear of the factory. There, amid bales of wadding and leather, children are hung upside down by their knees, starved, caned, or lashed. (In the interests of economy the foreman uses a lash made from scrap soccer-ball leather.) The punishment room is a standard feature of a Pakistani factory, as common as a lunchroom at a Detroit assembly plant.
The town’s other factories are no better, and many are worse. Here are brick kilns where five-year-olds work hip-deep in slurry pits, where adolescent girls stoke furnaces in 160 degree heat. Here are tanneries where nursing mothers mix vats of chemical dye, textile mills where eight-year-olds tend looms and breathe air thick with cotton dust.
When confronted with questions from a foreigner about their use of child labor, industrialists respond in one of two ways: they attack the questioner or they deliver a lengthy lecture about the role of children in Pakistan’s development. The attacks are not always verbal. Last June a Norwegian trade-union delegation was attacked at the Sialkot sporting-goods factory by three or four armed men who were believed to work for the factory’s owner. The delegation’s guide and cameraman were severely beaten and the latter required hospitalization. The police characterized the attackers as “civic-minded” and warned the delegation against inspecting other area factories and “unnecessarily antagonizing factory owners.”
More common, though, is the industrialist who ushers the foreign investigator into his office, plies him with coffee and cake, and tells him in his friendliest manner that child labor is a tradition the West cannot understand and must not attempt to change. “Our country has historically suffered from a labor shortage, a deficit of able-bodied men,” says Imran Malik, a prominent Lahore carpet exporter and the vice-chairman of the Pakistan Carpet Manufacturers and Exporters Association. “Children have compensated for this shortage. They have worked when adults could not. They have helped construct Pakistan’s infrastructure and advanced its industry. For thousands of years children have worked alongside their parents in their villages. The work they now do in factories and workshops is an extension of this tradition, and in most ways an improvement on it. The children earn more than they would elsewhere. They contribute significantly to their family’s security and raise their standard of living.”
The industrialist’s argument is accurate only in its assertion that Pakistani children have traditionally worked with their families. But children seldom worked outside the family until the 1960s, when the Islamic Republic made a dramatic effort to expand its manufacturing base. This led to a spectacular and disproportionately large increase in the number of children working outside the home, outside the village, at factories and workshops whose owners sought to maximize profits by keeping down labor costs. The rise in child abuse was as meteoric as the rise in child labor. The children working in these factories were beyond the reach or care of their families and were increasingly the victims of industrial accidents, kidnapping, and mistreatment.
A Mixed Curse
If employers would apply as much ingenuity to their manufacturing processes as they do to evading labor laws, we’d have no child-labor problem,” says Najanuddin Najmi, the director general of the Workers Education Program, a government agency. “There’s little doubt that inexpensive child labor has fueled Pakistan’s economic growth. Entire industries have relocated to Pakistan because of the abundance of cheap child labor and our lax labor laws. At the same time, child labor has hindered our industrial development, especially in the use of advanced technologies. Why should a manufacturer invest in labor-saving technology when labor-intensive mechanisms are so much cheaper? We are discovering more and more factories that have been redesigned and retooled so that only children can work there.”
Child labor has been a mixed curse for all of southern Asia, expanding its industrial capacity while generating an unprecedented assortment of social problems. Not surprisingly, Pakistan’s leaders are of two minds on the subject. Speaking officially, they deplore the practice and have nothing but pity for the roughly 11 million children working in factories, in fields, and on the streets. Speaking pragmatically, they regard the practice as a distasteful but unavoidable part of an emerging economy which time and prosperity will end. They are quick to take offense (and quicker to take the offensive) when human-rights activists suggest that they have ignored the problem.
“Westerners conveniently forget their own shameful histories when they come here,” says Shabbir Jamal, an adviser to the Ministry of Labor. “Europeans addressed slavery and child labor only after they became prosperous. Pakistan has only now entered an era of economic stability that will allow us to expand our horizons and address social concerns. Just as we are catching up with the West in industrial development, so we are catching up in workplace and social reforms. We are accelerating the pace of reform and have resolved to create viable welfare and educational structures that will eradicate child labor in the foreseeable future.”
Foreseeable may be a long way off. At the moment Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto seems more interested in outfitting her army than in reforming Pakistani society; her government has embarked on an ambitious military buildup that has already imperiled the region. Its first victims have been Pakistan’s lower castes, the working poor who are accustomed to receiving little in the way of social services and must now make do with less. In 1994 military spending was 240 percent as high as spending on health and education combined; the disparity is expected to widen in years to come. Spending on education remains among the world’s lowest. Only 37 percent of Pakistan’s 25 million school-age children complete primary school—as compared with a world average of 79 percent and a South Asian average of approximately 50 percent. By the year 2000 less than a third of Pakistani children will attend school. The rest will enter the work force or become beggars.
Behind these statistics lurks an unpleasant truth: despite its modern views on warfare and industrialization, Pakistan remains a feudal society, committed to maintaining traditions that over the centuries have served its upper castes well. The lords—factory owners, exporters, financiers—reflexively oppose any reforms that might weaken their authority, lower their profit margins, or enfranchise the workers. “There is room for improvement in any society,” the industrialist Imram Malik says. “But we feel that the present situation is acceptable the way it is. The National Assembly must not rush through reforms without first evaluating their impact on productivity and sales. Our position is that the government must avoid so-called humanitarian measures that harm our competitive advantages.” On those rare occasions when a reform does squeak through, the backlash is fierce. For example, when the legislature last year approved a modest tax on bricks to fund an education program, brick-kiln owners staged a ten-day nationwide protest and threatened to suspend production, crippling construction, until the tax was repealed. Trade associations have used similar strong-arm tactics to fight minimum-wage legislation, occupational-safety regulations, and trade-union activity.
The Charter of Freedom
With a government that is at best ambivalent about social issues and an industrial sector resistant to workplace reform, the task of abolishing child labor has fallen to the human-rights community. But in a country where corruption is pervasive and education scarce, social activists are everyone’s natural enemy. The ruling class despises them for assaulting its profitable traditions. The lower castes suspect them of ulterior motives. (Laborers are forever asking activists, “Why would an educated man trouble himself with the poor?”) Consequently, activists are frequent targets of slander, police harassment, and lawsuits. They are beaten just as frequently, and on occasion they are killed.
Yet they persist, and sometimes they prevail. If human-rights organizations are judged by the number of people they have helped, the Bonded Labor Liberation Front is probably the most successful in Pakistan. Since its founding, in 1988, the BLLF has led the fight against bonded and child labor, liberating 30,000 adults and children—frequently entire families—from brick kilns, carpet factories, and farms, and placing 11,000 children in its own primary school system (its motto: “Struggle against slavery through education”). At the same time, it has won 25,000 high-court cases against abusive and unscrupulous employers, and helped to push the recent labor legislation through the National Assembly.
“Our victories amount to a hardship,” says Ehsan Ulla Khan, the BLLF’s founder and guiding force. “The state has done nothing to enforce the anti-slavery laws or even to inform the public that child and bonded labor have been outlawed. It’s evident that if the enslaved workers are to be delivered from bondage, private citizens will have to do the delivering. That is, we will have to proclaim the end of slavery, educate workers, monitor employer compliance, and take legal action when necessary, because the state lacks the will and resources to do so.”
With little funding, the BLLF wages a two-front war against enterprises that use child and bonded labor. While its legal advisers engage the courts and the legislature, its field staff shuttles around the country, informing workers of their recently acquired rights and distributing a pamphlet known as “The Charter of Freedom,” which enumerates those rights in simple language. If a bonded laborer—child or adult—asks for its help, the BLLF takes whatever legal action is necessary to secure his or her release.
These days a surprising number of workers are refusing the pamphlet and turning their backs on BLLF staff members. This is an expression less of ingratitude than of fear. Employers throughout Pakistan are cautioning their workers against consorting with reformers who spread “false rumors” about the end of bonded labor. Many workers have been threatened with dismissal or violence if they speak with “the abolitionists” or are caught with “illegal communist propaganda.”
So effective is the factory owners’ disinformation campaign that workers literally flee when approached by BLLF staff members. This happened recently outside a Muridke brick factory to a BLLF leader I’ll call Tariq. The fifty-odd kiln workers leaving the factory at the end of the workday scattered in all directions when they noticed Tariq lingering outside the factory gate, pamphlets in hand. One soot-covered girl of eight, left behind in the confusion, burst into tears when Tariq asked if she needed help. Between sobs the girl pleaded, “Please, sir, I have nothing to tell you. Please let me go.”
Tariq did, albeit reluctantly. He has witnessed scenes like this countless times; they happen more and more often. If they discourage him (how could they not?), he takes care not to let anyone know. He describes his work as “an outgrowth of my patriotism.” “What we do is meant not to shame Pakistan before the world but to create a Pakistan that respects the rights of all its peoples and encourages human potential.” Tariq is a tall, pensive thirty-nine-year-old, an artist by training and by temperament. He traces his interest in child labor to an afternoon five years ago when an anti-slavery activist entered his graphic-design studio in need of a brochure for his struggling organization. “Ehsan Ulla Khan had little money to spare, and he intimated that he’d rather not pay at all for the design work,”Tariq told me. “I was just starting out in business and had no interest in politics or human rights. But I was moved by his photos of the children and agreed to do the work.” Within six months Tariq was preparing all of the BLLF’s documents; within a year he was overseeing its operations. Today he is its factotum: equal parts tactician, recruiter, instructor, fundraiser, morale-booster.
Some days he is also part spy. In addition to their assigned duties, the BLLF’s 600 staff members are encouraged to spend their free time scrounging for leads on factory owners who are especially abusive to children. All rumors are passed on to the BLLF’s Lahore headquarters. Tariq does what he can to substantiate the worst of them, usually by touring the factories. It’s a duty he dislikes. For one thing, it’s exhausting: there are too many leads, too many rumors to verify. For another, it’s dangerous: he’s had numerous clashes with publicity-shy employers and their thugs. He prefers to travel alone, reasoning that one man is less conspicuous and less of a threat than is a group. And despite his reservations he is adept at subterfuge, at gaining entry to factories by masquerading as a laborer, a wholesaler, an exporter. “I do not misrepresent myself,” he says. “But if a foreman mistakes me for a businessman or a wholesaler, I don’t correct him.”
His first stop one day last summer was a carpet workshop in a village twenty-four miles from Lahore. The village amounted to thirty brick huts, and the workshop was small in proportion—about the size of a subway car, and about as appealing. The long, narrow room contained a dozen upright looms. On each rough-hewn workbench between the looms squatted a carpet weaver. The room was dark and airless. Such light as there was came from a single ceiling fixture, two of its four bulbs burned out. A thermometer read 105 degrees, and the mud walls were hot to the touch. A window promised some relief, but it was closed against fabric-eating insects.
Tariq entered quietly, in slacks, shirt, and patent-leather loafers. This outfit is uncommon in the provinces; he hoped it marked him as a person with Western tastes, and his vehicle, a Toyota Land Cruiser (donated to the BLLF by UNICEF), which he had parked conspicuously close to the entrance, marked him as a man of means—a buyer, a broker, an exporter. The weavers smiled at him, and a few bowed, but no one dared speak to him. Tariq took advantage of their reverence—and the master’s absence—by circling the room, noting its conditions. After two circuits he began guessing the ages of the young weavers: “Are you twelve?” The boy nodded. Tariq pointed to the next. “Fourteen?” Another nod and a smile. “Ten?” This time the nod was shy, and someone mentioned that the day before had been the boy’s birthday. Tariq wished him health and happiness.
Of the twelve weavers, five were eleven to fourteen, and four were under ten. The two youngest were brothers named Akbar and Ashraf, aged eight and nine. They had been bonded to the carpet master at age five, and now worked six days a week at the shop. Their workday started at 6:00 A.M. and ended at 8:00 P.M., except, they said, when the master was behind on his quotas and forced them to work around the clock. They were small, thin, malnourished, their spines curved from lack of exercise and from squatting before the loom. Their hands were covered with calluses and scars, their fingers gnarled from repetitive work. Their breathing was labored, suggestive of tuberculosis. Collectively these ailments, which pathologists call captive-child syndrome, kill half of Pakistan’s working children by age twelve.
Tariq and I watched Akbar in silence for some time. A hand-knotted carpet is made by tying short lengths of fine colored thread to a lattice of heavier white threads. The process is labor-intensive and tedious: a single four-by-six-foot carpet contains well over a million knots and takes an experienced weaver four to six months to complete. The finest, most intricate carpets have the highest density of knots. The smaller the knot, the more knots the weaver can cram into his lattice and the more valuable the finished carpet. Small knots are, of course, made most easily by small hands. Each carpet Akbar completed would retail in the United States for about $2,000—more than the boy would earn in ten years.
Observing a child carpet weaver at work generates in an American alternating currents of admiration and anger. At one moment the boy seems a prodigy, his carpet a lesson in geometry and colors. His patience is remarkable; his artistry seems effortless and of the highest order—comparable to, say, that of a great medieval tapestry master. The next moment he fumbles with his scissors, and one notices a welt on his forearm. Suddenly the monotony of tying thousands of threads each hour seems like torture of the worst sort—like a death sentence, which in a way it is.
After ten minutes Tariq knelt by Akbar’s side and said softly, “You’re very good at this. The master must be quite pleased with you.” The boy shook his head and grimaced. “The master says I am slow and clumsy.”
Tariq placed a sympathetic hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Have you been punished for poor work?”he asked. The boy shrugged and tied a red knot. Tariq repeated the question. This time the boy tied a dozen knots before answering him, in a conspiratorial whisper. “The master screams at us all the time, and sometimes he beats us,” he said. “He is less severe with the younger boys. We’re slapped often. Once or twice he lashed us with a cane. I was beaten ten days ago, after I made many errors of color in a carpet. He struck me with his fist quite hard on the face.” By way of corroborating this, Akbar lifted a forelock, revealing a multicolored bruise on his right temple. Evidently the master did not consider the blow sufficient punishment: “I was fined one thousand rupees and made to correct the errors by working two days straight.” The fine was added to Akbar’s debt, and would extend his “apprenticeship” by several months.
“Do you like working here?”
“Oh, no, sir, staying here longer fills me with dread. I know I must learn a trade. But my parents are so far away, and all my friends are in school. My brother and I would like to be with our family. We’d like to play with our friends. This is not the way children should live.”
Tariq listened to this outpouring without emotion. He has cultivated what he calls a surgeon’s insensitivity to ravaged flesh, “because otherwise my heart would break ten times a day.” Neither Akbar nor the others knew that child labor was illegal, that they were free to leave the workshop whenever they wished.
Tariq left the factory and, on a whim, headed for the district police headquarters. As a rule BLLF members are closely observant of legal procedure, lest they be accused of subversive activity. The organization’s legal advisers typically spend weeks drafting a formal complaint against a factory, based on members’ espionage, before they register it with a high-court magistrate. Right now, however, Tariq was as interested in testing the responsiveness of the police as in penalizing the factory owner.
The nearest police station is a colonial relic on the Lahore road in Muridke. Tariq was caught up in the usual bureaucratic chaos on entering. The foyer was packed with police officers, soldiers, crime victims, and criminals, half of them shouting, the other half covering their ears against the noise. Every now and then the soldiers tried to impose order on the crowd, but with tattered uniforms and clipless rifles their authority went only so far. Familiar with such outposts, Tariq took his place in a line and forty minutes later was face-to-face with the district sergeant. It was ten in the morning. The sergeant had been at his post for two hours, but it could have been 200 for the way he looked. Tariq told him about the conditions in the workshop, about the children. The sergeant was perplexed. “Is this a crime?” he asked. “No one has ever complained before. What do you want us to do about it?” Tariq suggested sending officers to investigate, along with a medical-services crew for the children.
The sergeant left to consult his superior. Two minutes later he returned with the superintendent, a gracious, mustachioed man of fifty. “We are not unsympathetic to your complaint,” the superintendent informed Tariq. “But the place you describe is registered as a home enterprise. It is run by a small landowner, and the workers are his immediate family. Family businesses are exempt from the labor laws. This enterprise is not illegal.” The superintendent opened a binder and showed Tariq the workshop’s registration certificate. Tariq attempted to correct him, but the superintendent said, “What you say may or may not be true. Unfortunately, our jurisdiction does not include child labor. I have no authority to investigate a private workplace. I have no evidence that the children are working there against their will or that their lives are in jeopardy. The mechanism for doing what you ask simply does not exist here.”
Tariq was not disappointed, nor was he surprised. He expected no better, and was even pleased that he had rated an audience with the superintendent. Corruption is pervasive in the justice system: for a small consideration the police will look the other way when employers misuse their workers. In several districts the police are notorious for colluding with employers—supplying factories with children who have been abducted from itinerant poor families, orphanages, schools. Not long ago a boy of nine escaped from an abusive landowner and sought help from a police sergeant at this very station. The boy claimed that he had been held captive and tortured; he begged the police to return him to his parents. Instead the sergeant ordered the “fugitive” returned in shackles to the landowner. The sergeant later made the landowner a gift of the shackles, suggesting that they be used on other disruptive children.
The Death of Iqbal Masih
In 1992 Pakistani carpet exports fell for the first time in two decades. The fall was slight in absolute terms—no more than three or four percentage points—but it indicated that Western consumers were shying away from luxury goods made by Third World children. Carpet makers’ fears were confirmed when in 1993 and 1994 sales fell sharply in several of the largest markets for Pakistani exports. Since carpets were an important source of foreign currency, the decline sent shock waves throughout the Pakistani economy. At a 1993 conference, officials of the Pakistan Carpet Manufacturers and Exporters Association blamed the decline on “subversive domestic organizations which are conducting misleading and false international media campaigns abroad about the use of child labor in our manufacturing processes.” The conference concluded on an optimistic note: “The memory of Western consumers is brief and our enemies’ meager resources cannot sustain their destructive campaign for much longer.”
Whatever hopes the carpet makers had for a reversal of their misfortunes were dashed in 1994, when human-rights organizations around the world acclaimed a twelve-year-old former slave named Iqbal Masih for his crusade against child labor. A small, sickly boy, Iqbal had been bonded at age four to a village carpet maker. He spent much of the next six years chained to a loom, which he worked fourteen hours a day, six days a week. He was fed just enough to keep him functioning, and was beaten more often than the other children at the workshop, because, unlike them, he defied the master time and again, refusing to work and on occasion attempting to escape. At ten he slipped his chains and sought the help of the BLLF, which secured him his freedom and a place in a primary school.
Frail as he was, Iqbal was a child of rare gifts, possessed of an intellectual maturity beyond his years and a precocious sense of justice. He applied these gifts to the anti-slavery movement, and achieved results that would be impressive for a Nobel laureate, let alone a schoolboy. By his twelfth birthday he had helped to liberate 3,000 children from bondage at textile and brick factories, tanneries, steelworks—industries at the heart of the Pakistani economy. He was subsequently honored by the International Labor Organization, in Sweden; by Reebok, which presented him with its prestigious Human Rights Youth in Action Award (for “his courage and ingenuity in righting a centuries-old wrong”) in Boston in December of 1994; and by ABC News, which featured him as its Person of the Week. He used his unlikely celebrity status to remind consumers that “the world’s two hundred million enslaved children are your responsibility.” Subsequent to his travels millions of people in the United States and Europe searched their souls and decided that they could do without products of doubtful origin from Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh.
Iqbal attained a corresponding notoriety in Pakistan, particularly among the politicians and industrialists whose feudal practices he opposed. They responded with smear campaigns and the occasional threat of violence. Iqbal dismissed these threats, telling his friends that they encouraged him to work harder. He reasoned that grown men would harm a child only as a last resort, when their own position proved vulnerable.
On the evening of April 16, 1995, Easter Sunday, Iqbal Masih was shot dead while visiting relatives in a rural village. Immediately afterward Ehsan Ulla Khan declared that the slain youth was the victim of “a mafia conspiracy.” In the days that followed, Khan embellished his conspiracy theory for anyone willing to listen. “I emphatically say that the carpet mafia is responsible for this brutal killing . . . Iqbal has become a symbol of our struggle against slavery and was not afraid to expose the inhuman practices prevailing in the carpet industry. I have no doubt that the police are also a part of the conspiracy.” However, Khan did not support his fulminations with evidence. “I do not rely on evidence,” he told his critics. “I have my instinct. How else do you explain how, in a village where no murder has occurred for a decade, the one child who poses a threat to the carpet owners is gunned down? Coincidence is never so cruel.” To the claim of the local police that Iqbal’s murder was an isolated incident Khan retorts, “The evidence can be found if the police could be bothered to look.” The killing remains unsolved.
Eight hundred mourners crowded into the Muridke cemetery for Iqbal’s funeral. A week later 3,000 protesters, half of them under twelve, marched through the streets of Lahore demanding an end to child labor. A few days after the funeral Khan left Pakistan to consult with children’s-rights activists in Europe. There he repeated his accusations to great effect at conferences, on television, before lawmakers. Iqbal was proclaimed a “martyr for the cause of bonded labor”; his murder became a cause célèbre among the intelligentsia. Khan called upon the Human Rights Commission of the United Nations to ban the import and sale of all products made by children, especially carpets. “I appeal to importers and consumers: say no and only no to child-made carpets,” he said. “This is the last message of Iqbal. It would be an insult to his blood and memory if people continue to buy child-made products in any part of the world.”
Western consumers have responded to Khan’s plea. Sales of imported carpets have fallen precipitously in recent months. Bowing to public pressure, importers in the United States, Sweden, Italy, Britain, France, and Germany by last June had canceled carpet orders collectively valued at $10 million. At the same time, human-rights groups and individual sympathizers have donated large sums to support and expand BLLF operations. Ironically, Iqbal’s death opened doors and purses that were previously closed to Khan.
Westerners, who have seen economic weapons used to achieve social reforms, might expect canceled orders to result in negotiation and, with luck, accommodation between industrialists and activists. Pakistan’s industrialists, however, have chosen the questionable tactic of denying the existence of bonded labor in their factories. Shahid Rashid Butt, the president of the Islamabad Carpet Exporters Association, told his colleagues, “Our industry is the victim of enemy agents who spread lies and fictions around the world that bonded labor and child labor are utilized in the production of hand-knotted carpets. They are not and have never been.” He condemned the BLLF and its allies as Jewish and Indian enemies who had launched a systematic campaign to damage the reputation of Pakistan’s carpet industry for their own profit. His remarks were enthusiastically endorsed by the Pakistan Carpet Manufacturers and Exporters Association and echoed in the National Assembly.
“These charges flew in the face not just of reason but also of an extraordinary amount of evidence,” says I. A. Rehman, the director of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. “Anywhere else they would have been laughed at and dismissed. Here they were accepted as fact and acted on.” At the urging of politicians and industrialists, Javed Mahmood, the assistant director of Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), last May launched an inquiry into the BLLF on the strength of information he had received from highly placed sources suggesting that the organization was supported by “Pakistan’s enemies.”He later said, “I consider the information credible and will do all I can to protect our country’s commercial interests from unscrupulous enemies.” At the same time, Pakistan’s leading newspapers began running “exposés” of abolitionist leaders, the nicest of which characterized Ehsan Ulla Khan as a philandering bigamist with “indisputable ties to Jewish and Indian agencies hostile to Pakistan.” The publishers of these newspapers are suspected of having large financial interests in industries employing child labor.
The FIA is a secret police force, and one of its best-kept secrets is whom it works for. Nominally an organ of the state, it is not above accepting freelance assignments from prominent individuals and commercial groups. The extent of its extralegal activities is anyone’s guess, but a highly respected human-rights investigator believes that “there is close cooperation between carpet interests, feudal lords, segments of the police force, and the administration—district commissioners, the courts, and government officials. Financially resourceful drug barons are also a part of the scene.” Whoever the client, the FIA provides an assortment of services straight out of the KGB handbook: wiretaps, tails, searches, arrests, harassment, and varying degrees of corporal punishment.
These services were very much in evidence on a Thursday afternoon in late June, when the FIA raided the BLLF’s Lahore headquarters. The detail consisted of ten men, all in plain clothes, who scrambled up four flights of stairs to the tiny office in no time flat. These were not ordinary policemen; this was not the usual surprise “inspection” (read “intimidation”) to which all nongovernment organizations are periodically subjected. These were professional agents, lithe and expert, commanded by a severe officer in a freshly pressed safari suit. After lining the BLLF workers up against a wall, he ordered his troops to “confiscate anything that may incriminate them.” The agents took a liberal view of “incriminate,” and packed up computers, filing cabinets, fax machines, photocopiers, telephones, stationery, posters, bicycles—and the cashbox containing the monthly payroll. Their depredations were supervised by a small man who was distinctly not a policeman. He represented, it turned out, the Pakistan Carpet Manufacturers and Exporters Association. His purpose, he said, was “to protect the interests of legitimate businessmen.” Every so often he consulted with the commander.
When one BLLF worker tried to protest, an agent threw her against a wall and held a rifle butt inches from her face. When another worker demanded to see a search warrant, the commander informed her that none was necessary, because “we are acting to prevent terrorism.” The association representative nodded in agreement.
Fifteen minutes later the detail was gone, along with the office equipment and furnishings. All that remained was a heap of broken furniture, a workers’-rights poster, and a BLLF flag dangling out an open window. Several staff workers had been taken away as well, to an FIA holding center, where they were interrogated for three days.
Two days later another FIA detail raided the BLLF’s “Freedom Campus” training facility in Lahore, along with several of its primary schools around the country. Once again the agents were undiscriminating. They seized everything movable (“items used to obstruct valid commercial interests”) and mistreated the staff without respect for position or age. Teachers, drivers, secretaries, and peasant families seeking refuge from violent employers were interrogated along with administrators, advocates, attorneys, and fundraisers.
After an earlier raid on BLLF headquarters Fatima Ghulam, the director of the BLLF’s women’s-education program, was held for two days. “An officer promised to release me immediately if I agreed to inform against Ehsan Ulla Khan and some of the others,” Ghulam says. “He wanted me to testify that Khan is a subversive, an enemy agent, and that the BLLF receives money from foreign governments. He said he had tapped my telephone conversations and had recordings of me discussing treasonable acts. If I wanted to avoid prosecution, I would have to cooperate with the FIA. I refused, and he kept me without food or water. When I wouldn’t speak to him the next day, he slapped me and dragged me around the room.”
Not to be outdone, the Pakistani press stepped up its campaign against the BLLF. Last summer a number of newspapers whose editorial pages conceded that they were “troubled by the carpet export crisis” reported the following “facts”: Khan himself had murdered Iqbal Masih to win sympathy for the BLLF; Khan had misappropriated BLLF funds to support his own decadent lifestyle; Khan routinely used BLLF schoolchildren as sex partners and house slaves; Iqbal Masih was a twenty-one-year-old midget whom Khan paid to masquerade as a carpet child; the BLLF was an outpost of India’s intelligence agency; Khan was an Indian agent working to disgrace the Pakistani carpet trade. These same papers also “revealed” that carpet workers enjoy a higher standard of living than the average citizen, along with better working conditions. “The few children working on carpets,” one editorial assured its readers, “do so after school, in their own homes, under the supervision of loving parents.”
In the wake of these attacks BLLF operations—child-welfare programs, schools, training and education programs—nearly shut down for lack of funds and staff. Membership has suffered, and many of the legal advisers and support staff, fearing reprisals, have fallen away. Those who remain are subject to almost constant harassment: the fortunate ones have their telephones tapped; the less fortunate are shadowed around the clock. At the same time, the courts have ignored their complaints about child labor and abusive treatment by employers.
Just in case the intention of the Federal Investigation Agency was unclear, Assistant Director Mahmood in early June charged Ehsan Ulla Khan, who was still abroad, and a BLLF strategist named Zafaryab Ahmad with sedition and economic treason, capital offenses punishable by death. According to Mahmood, “The accused men conspired with the Indian espionage agency to exploit the murder of Iqbal Masih . . . causing a recurring huge financial loss to Pakistan’s business interests abroad and paving the way for India to wage economic warfare against Pakistan.” Ahmad was arrested and taken to a Lahore jail, where, after repudiating the charges (he called them “foolish and absurd”), he was denied bail. The FIA has since refused to provide BLLF attorneys with evidence supporting the charges, although Mahmood assures them that it consists of “videotapes and recordings of telephone conversations that amount to firm proof.” Mahmood has vowed to arrest Khan “the very moment he returns to Pakistan, the moment his aircraft touches down.”
Ehsan Ulla Khan remains in Europe, an unhappy exile. “They will jail me if I return to Pakistan,” he told me shortly after he left his country. “Our attorneys tell me I am of greater use to the BLLF here, speaking out against the authorities, than I would be inside a Lahore cell. I fear for my people. The police have harassed many of them, and so many more have left us out of fear. We are demoralized. We cannot pay our bills and our staff. Our schools may close and our thousands of students may end up in the very factories we saved them from. Our offices and homes are under surveillance. Our telephones are tapped. We are fighting for our survival. If the attacks do not stop soon, it is possible that the BLLF will perish. That would be tragic. What will become of the children of Pakistan?”
Published by The Atlantic Magazine on February 1, 2011