Angels in Hell: Children as Slave Workers

According to UNICEF, while child labor is a global problem, children in the Global South are most vulnerable. Surprisingly, most of these children are from Asian countries

I was startled the other day to see a Pakistani name on the official website of the U.S. Department of Labor. First thought it was a mistake but when I continued reading I came across a bold headline:

“The United States Department of Labor’s Iqbal Masih Award for the Elimination of Child Labor.”

To my surprise, I found out that the U.S. Government gives an award every year to a person who has done extraordinary work to eliminate bonded child labor in any country in memory Iqbal Masih, a child from Pakistan. He became famous as an activist against child labor but sadly his life was cut short at the age of 13.

The announcement further declared:

“Iqbal Masih was a Pakistani carpet weaver sold into slavery at age four. He escaped from his servitude at age 12 and became an outspoken advocate against child slavery.”

Iqbal Masih (1982-1995) was a slave child worker from Muridke, a small town near Lahore. Trapped in a continuous chain of extreme poverty, his father sold him to a carpet manufacturer in his early age. After working for a carpet factory for years, he finally managed to escape from his work and started campaigning against child labor and slavery. He became a famous child all over the world for his extraordinary talent as a speaker and activist.

The Bonded Labor Liberation Front (BLLF) was active at that time in Pakistan, in bringing up the rights of children and slave labor, and Iqbal became associated with it as an activist. He visited factories, trained people and informed owners of children rights. The campaign successfully released 3,000 child workers from bonded labor.

As a little hero, Iqbal also visited abroad as part of his campaign against child labor. In Sweden he received the International Labor Organization Award in recognition of his bold campaign. He also received the Reebok Human Rights award in the United States in 1994 where he visited schools and inspired children to work against child labor practices around the world. School children initiated a movement and established schools in Pakistan with their own donated funds, one in his hometown Muridke, in his name.

Although he successfully built a popular public opinion and initiated a mounting pressure from international community resulting in new laws against child labor in Pakistan, the business community opposed the campaign furiously in the name of Pakistan’s economy and trade.

Iqbal Masih was shot dead on April 6, 1995 when he came home from his American trip and no one knows who killed him. Many people, however, think the powerful carpet mafia was behind his murder.

The whole establishment, media and agencies, instead of providing justice to his family and supporting a good cause, launched a smear campaign again him and his support groups. BLLF’s office was raided by the FIA and a nasty media campaign was launched justifying child labor perceived to be necessary to boost economy and international trade.

Child labor is highly prized by carpet makers because their tiny fingers make small, tight knots, producing carpets of fine quality. While a good carpet can be sold for $4,000 abroad, it is equal to ten year’s salary of a child working for 12 hours every day without a break. Extreme inhuman conditions in carpet factories and malnourishment leave devastating effects on these children’s health, who otherwise, should have been studying in schools.

In the carpet industry children are practically bought from parents for as low as $12 roughly equal to 1,000 in local currency. After deducting costs of food and lodging, the loan keeps growing and the parents get very little in exchange of their children’s hard work and deteriorating health.

As Pakistani carpets have become valuable all over the world, exploitation of children continues despite government laws against it. Labor laws were passed in 1989 banning child labor in Pakistan which improved the conditions to some extent but child slavery still continues with all of its exploitations.

Carpet weaving, however, is not the only industry that employs child labor on negligible wages or as bonded labor in Pakistan. Kiln brick factories, tanneries, sports equipment industries, steel mills, stone cursing plant sand farming businesses also hire a large number of children as bonded slave or cheap labor.

Anti-Slavery International, a British-based group that campaigns against forced labor, estimates that carpet makers employ about 500,000 children under 14 years old in Pakistan, 300,000 in India and 110,000 in Nepal. According to an estimate some 11 million children are working as child labor to support their families all over the world.

Hand-knotted carpets made in Iran, China, Afghanistan, Morocco, Turkey, Peru and some former Soviet states are also popular in the west. Cheap labor cost provides an advantage for the carpet industry who can offer products on a competitive price in the world market.

Exploitation of children, however, as a cheap labor working in inhuman conditions is a worldwide phenomenon not limited to developing countries and South Asia. According to the official data of the U.S. Government, over 14 to 15 thousand workers are illegally trafficked in the United States from other countries and half of them are children who are employed as cheap labor in farming, manufacturing, domestic work, and sex industry.

Worldwide, some 1.2 million children are trafficked every year for forced labor and sexual exploitation. According to UNICEF, while child labor is a global problem, children in the Global South are most vulnerable. Surprisingly, most of these children are from Asian countries.

I understand why other countries have recognized Iqbal Masih for his unmatched devotion to eradicate child labor. But I don’t know why the Pakistani government has terribly failed to recognize this young citizen who sacrificed his life for an extraordinary mission and saved thousands of children like him from slavery and ruthless working conditions.

No wonder why Iqbal Masih became an international hero during his short life of 13 years, but very few people know about him and his achievements in his own homeland!

There are thousands of little angels surviving in hell like conditions in Pakistan, working day and night at the mercy of greedy profiteers.

(From Viewpoint Online)