HYDERABAD, Pakistan — In one hand he clutches a hoe, in the other a small plastic truck. Hamo, 8, has worked as a farm laborer since he was five, alongside his 12 family members who are trapped working on the land of a faceless landlord.
They are slaves.
Nanji, Hamo’s father, has lived and worked for the last ten years on a plot of land just outside Hyderabad in southern Sindh. He’s spent his entire life as a bonded laborer, being sold between farms — first as a child with his parents and today as a father with his eight children. He arrived at his present the condition in the usual way: debt.
Nanji says his debt is Rs100,000 ($1,000). But for families like his, the actual amount is irrelevant, because the payoff plan is hypothetical.
“Usually we remain in debt because we take amounts from them [the landlords] for feeding our children and other day to day expenses,” he says, sitting outside his home, a mud hut sandwiched between an irrigation channel and the road. Nanji’s only contact with the landlord is through the farm manager.
Money rarely changes hands between landlord and tenants. Instead all transactions are recorded in a register maintained by the landlord. Each harvest is meant to pay off part of the debt, but costs — many of which the landlord is meant to bear himself under the few laws that are meant to offer protection to laborers in Pakistan — are added to the debt with interest.
“The actual thing that is keeping people in bondage is the manipulation of the records. The “hari” is illiterate and uneducated and doesn’t know how to keep the records,” explained Ghulam Hyder, director of the Green Rural Development organization, a Sindh-based group working with bonded laborers, using the Sindhi term for tenant. “And in this society the value of the word is always to the landlord.”
There are an estimated 1.8 million bonded — or debt — laborers in Pakistan, approximately 10 percent of the population. A report by Walk Free Foundation published in late 2013 ranked Pakistan third, behind Haiti and Mauritania, for the highest prevalence of slavery. Pakistan also ranks third in absolute terms, behind India and China, with a total of 2.2 million people living as slaves.
The majority of these bonded laborers work in brick kilns in the provinces of Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and as agricultural laborers in Sindh province. They work to pay off an ever-spiraling debt that began often generations before when huge swaths of Pakistan were run as the fiefdoms of a few influential families. Today, these laborers are sold between landlords and the debt starts with the sum they are sold for — but with each harvest it grows.
Pressure by human and labor rights groups has helped to somewhat curtail the practice in Punjab, Pakistan’s wealthiest province. But an attack in April on two labor rights activists campaigning for the rights of bonded laborers on the edge of Lahore, the capital of Punjab, brought the issue back into the limelight. The attack was blamed on an owner of a brick kiln.
“There is not even a single kiln in Lahore and its suburbs which is not owned by the politicians who are sitting in corridors of power, including federal and provincial assemblies,” said Ibn Abdur Rehman, a prominent human rights activist and president of the National Coalition Against Bonded Labor.
Limited resources in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and apathy in Sindh province — where Nanji and Hamo live — has allowed the entrenched feudal system to continue with little interruption.
Hamo's mother, Ratana. (Annabel Symington/GlobalPost)
The majority of bonded laborers in Khyber Pakhtukhwa province, in the restive northwest of Pakistan, are Afghan refugees who have fled Afghanistan over the last decade. There are an estimated 2 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan, of which half are undocumented, leaving them particularly vulnerable to exploitation.
The UN has warned that Pakistan may see a surge of refugees fleeing instability in Afghanistan as NATO troops leave, raising the possibility that the number of bonded laborers in Khyber Pakhtukhwa will increase over the coming year.
“The landlords are the politicians, they are the judges, they are the police,” said Hyder, explaining the endemic system of patronage that governs Sindh, “And they will never pass laws against themselves.”
The landlords are the traditional powerbase in much of rural Pakistan. The land is passed from one generation to the next — and with it the bonded laborers that work it. In most cases, farm managers deal with the day to day running of the farms with the landlords presiding like a ruling lord, intervening to settle disputes and administer justice.
Two landlords whom I arranged to meet cancelled our meeting at the last minute. One eventually agreed to speak over the phone.
Aftab Mahesar owns 400 acres around Hyderabad in Sindh and says he has more than 200 people working on his land.
“Yes, they are in debt,” he conceded, after initially denying that any of the people working his land were bonded laborers. “But they can free themselves after one crop.”
“This is just [putting] the blame on the landlords,” he added, as he tried to paint the landlords as the victims of a plot to smear their name.
“All the landlords in Sindh are good and kind to their 'hari,'” he continued. ”The media is open so if someone [a landlord] is cheating it is in the open.”
Occasionally, landlords are exposed in the local press for abusing their tenants. But, explained Hyder, those exposed tend to be smaller land owners who have fallen out of favor with a local influential. Like the police and district judges, most of the local newspapers are owned — or at least controlled — by the local don.
Nanji acknowledges that his treatment is unfair, but looks bewildered when asked what he would do if he was freed.
“They get released but with only the clothes they are wearing. The landlords seize all their assets and they have nothing from the years of work,” said Hyder. The few organizations that support freed bonded laborers have limited resources to help the freed slaves find housing and work. Many laborers return to bondage when the support runs out.
“They are more aware of their rights but if they leave the land, where will they go? There is no safety net and they have no skills and they are illiterate. Even if they know their rights, they are afraid of leaving. It is simply the fear of starving.”
“It is hard and difficult and sometimes I get tired,” Hamo says, when I ask him about his work.
I ask him what he likes to do when he’s not working. His father, Nanji, interrupts. “Then he cuts grass for the animals.”