It all started with a photograph taken by Brandon Stanton, the now-famous photographer and founder of the Facebook page entitled, “Humans of New York.” It was a simple image, perhaps, of a yellow-sari-clad Pakistani woman standing in a field of red bricks and dust.
The implications of that single photograph, however, went deeper than a visually compelling scene, and Stanton soon found himself exploring the murky world of bonded labor.
The arresting results of Stanton’s photographic journey arrived on Facebook in August 2015 and brought with them a shocking exposé. The original woman in yellow, named Syeda Ghulam Fatima, is the founder of the Bonded Labour Liberation Front, a Pakistan-based organization devoted to freeing individuals and families from bonded labor. Widely characterized as a contemporary Harriet Tubman, Fatima has been subjected to torture for her activism, including electrocution.
When Stanton visited Pakistan on his travels, his original intention was to extend the HONY theme to a worldwide base. What his photographs reveal, however, is a pervasive form of slavery in which entire families are literally bought and sold as part of bonded labor agreements. In short, Pakistani brick kilns offer individuals loans in return for labor. Unfortunately, when the original labor agreements expire, additional charges are levied against workers, forcing them to continue working indefinitely for free.
The trap is so simple: poor individuals, many of whom are illiterate farmers, find themselves with large bills to pay and turn to the rich brick kiln owners, who offer to bail them out of dire financial straits. One man reported that he took out a loan to cover his sister’s hospital bill, which totalled 30,000 rupees. In return, he accepted a position making bricks at a kiln, which paid him 200 rupees per 1,000 bricks. The man worked a dawn-to-dusk seven-day-per-week work schedule for three months to pay off the debt, only to be told he owed the kiln 90,000 rupees at the end of his supposed tenure.
“Despite these allegedly protective laws, however, bonded labor in Pakistan appears to be alive and thriving.”
At the time his picture was taken, the man’s apparent debt totaled 900,000 rupees, essentially enslaving him permanently. His entire family was summarily sold to another brick kiln for 2.2 million rupees.
Another man’s story included the loss of his sister, for whom he had taken out a 5,000 rupee loan after selling all of his own assets. His sister, who had been sick with kidney failure, passed away regardless of her brother’s efforts. When the man asked for leniency or tried to stop working, he was beaten. By the time Stanton arrived to take his picture, the man owed his brick kiln 350,000 rupees, a debt he believed would pass on to his own children.
Given the pervasive nature of bonded labor in Pakistan, one might assume that it is a legal practice in the country. However, Pakistan’s Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act has been in place to protect workers since the early 1990s. Despite these allegedly protective laws, however, bonded labor in Pakistan appears to be alive and thriving.
The mission of Fatima’s Bonded Labour Liberation Front is to end bonded labor for good. After founding the organization in 1988, Fatima and her husband worked for years to free bonded individuals, often one at a time. Sometimes, those bonded individuals included children. After exhausting her financial resources, Fatima found herself on the verge of not being able to continue her work or pay her medical bills.
Stanton’s arrival on the scene changed the outlook for Bonded Labour Liberation Front. Initially, his photographs exposed the bonded labor problem; then, a fundraiser set up by Stanton began to pull in funds en masse. In only 13 days, the online drive raised over $2.3 million. In Pakistan, the dollar has roughly five times the purchasing power as in the United States. Via the fundraiser and the exposure generated by HONY, Fatima plans to continue her fight against bonded labor and end the practice permanently in Pakistan.