Horrors of modern slavery

Slavery is prohibited by law in Pakistan. According to Article 11 of the Constitution, slavery is “non-existent and forbidden and no law shall permit or facilitate its introduction into Pakistan in any form”. It prohibits “all forms of forced labour and trafficking in human beings”, and warns “no child below the age of 14 years shall be engaged in any factory or mine or any other hazardous employment”. But this high-sounding national commitment refuses to leave the book and walk the streets and fields of Pakistan. In today’s Pakistan there are 2.1 million modern slaves – more than the combined population of Islamabad and Rawalpindi – as the country stands third in rank among 167 countries surveyed by the Australia-based human rights group Walk Free Foundation. The report identifies Punjab and Sindh as hot spots of bonded labour with brick kilns, agriculture and carpet weaving industrial units. However, chauvinists among us may draw vicarious pleasure knowing that our situation is better, but only slightly, than of India which tops the global slavery index, being home of 14.3 million modern slaves. China has 3.2 million, Uzbekistan 1.2 million, Nigeria 834,200, DR Congo 762,900, Indonesia 714,100, Bangladesh 680,900 and Thailand 473,300 modern slaves. Percentage-wise, Mauritania is at the top, while oil-rich Qatar is fourth, which employs migrant labour to build its mega projects including soccer stadiums for the 2022 World Cup. The curse of modern slavery is global in prevalence – nearly 36 million people live as slaves across the globe – some as children forced to work, others as bonded labour, illegal immigrants, unpaid and abused women and girls. The modern slavery has many faces. A modern slave may not be in chains, but he is the one who is held ‘possessed or controlled by another person in such a way as to significantly deprive that person of his individual liberty with intention of exploiting that person through the use of management, profit, transfer or disposal’. Of course, conflicts and poverty produce slaves, quite like the women slaves in ISIS-captured territories and Boko Haram’s booties, but in today’s world they are essentially the product of economic exploitation. And this is so in spite of the fact that almost every country criminalizes slavery in all its notorious modes, but most of them lack the will to enforce anti-slavery laws. In Pakistan too, a lot is said and done to curb modern slavery, but only on paper. There is no national-level body to oversee the work of government bodies tasked to control and eradicate slavery as it exists in multiple forms, a dilemma all the more complicated by the absence of a clear-headed approach. For instance, while – thanks to the 18th Constitutional Amendment – the brick kilns fall in the jurisdiction of provinces the human trafficking is a federal subject. Every other day media reports show the owner of a brick kiln had kept hostage its bonded labour or an entire family is kept in captivity by armed guards of a landlord, or a teenaged girl is kept in chains in a posh residential area. Equally disturbing are the stories of our workers abroad, particularly in the Middle East, who are denied wages promised at the time of recruitment and held hostage as their travel documents are kept by their employers. Since invariable the disputes resulting from industrial and domestic enslavement situations are between two unequal sides, a poor hapless person versus a powerful, influential landlord or brick kiln owner, the ends of justice are rarely met. Indeed, Pakistan being third on the index of modern slavery it’s a shameful distinction. But given national will and stringent law-enforcement can alleviate this lingering shame. On the domestic front, not only suitable legislation should be done to bring application of anti-slavery laws under one roof the performance of the concerned departments should be regularly monitored. Bluntly said, the villain of the piece in here is the labour inspector. On foreign front, the labour attaches posted in countries with substantial presence of Pakistani labour should be directed to ensure protection of its interests, mainly by engaging with the erring local employers. Failure to wake up to the alarming situation of modern slavery in Pakistan can be disastrous given that nearly 70 percent of population is vulnerable to this curse owing to weak law, widespread corruption and rampant poverty.