The Menace of Bonded Labour in Pakistan’s Agricultural Sector

Agriculture remains a significant economic activity in Pakistan, employing nearly 45 percent of the total workforce. While it generates about a quarter of the national GDP, the agricultural sector is not very productive. Skewed landownership and exploitative production practices remain significant factors in perpetuating this lackluster agricultural performance.

The phenomenon of bonded labour is perhaps the most glaring example of prevailing exploitations within agriculture. This article will begin by highlighting the problem of bonded labour in rural areas of the country. Thereafter, the effectiveness of various local and international agencies in abolishing this practise will be discussed.

At the onset however, it must be realised that this issue of bonded or forced labour is both highly politicised as well as being prone to concealment in all the four provinces of Pakistan. Until the late 1990s in particular, no one seemed to pay any heed to this issue despite that fact that Pakistan had ratified International Labour Organizations (ILO) Conventions against forced labour since the 1960’s. The existence of national laws such as the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act 1992 also did little to change the situation on ground.

Inaction or apathy concerning this practice can be attributed to a lack of empirical knowledge regar-ding the issue, combined with inadequate institutional capacity to take appropriate action, as well as socio-cultural acceptance of this phenomenon within the context of a highly stratified social set-up which exists across the country.

This gross form of human exploitation is also linked to the lingering challenges of widespread poverty and growing income inequalities, and lack of adequate employment opportunities.

The Complexities of Forced Labour

Before assessing what has been done over the past decade or so to contend with this problem, and what else may be done at present, let us take a closer look at the complex realities surrounding this issue.

Forced labour in Pakistan, primarily in the form of debt bondage, is found most commonly amongst agriculture workers. In addition, a high incidence of bonded labour is found in brick kilns, domestic service (particularly women and child labour), carpet weaving and mining. In the above sectors apart from mining, women feature as a major labour force. Since no written contract exists the worker is vulnerable to all forms of exploitation.

Bonded labourers are mostly from socially excluded groups, including minorities and migrants who suffer additionally from discrimination and political disenfranchisement.

Studies conducted by reputable agencies like the Asian Development Bank (ADB) reveal that Pakistan has a large rural-urban gap in terms of social and economic indicators of development. The dominant economic characteristic of the agricultural labour force in Sindh and Balochistan is extreme poverty and low social indicators of development.

Poverty is pervasive and deep, especially in rural areas. Landlord and tenant relations in rural Pakistan also continue to exhibit traditionally feudal dynamics. Poor tenants do not only rely on their landlord for access to land, but also for agricultural inputs, which in turn obligates them. Inevitable expenditures on social occasions such as marriage, death and feasts also lead poor people to accumulate debts taken from landlords where these landless farmers work. Often, these loans are given with high rates of interest, which keeps compounding over time.

Bonded labourers within the agricultural sector are not allowed to leave landlord’s farm till their debts are repaid. Given the lack of education to calculate how much money they owe to the landlord, and how much of it is being deducted every month from the overall money made by their labour, these loans often keep unfairly accumulating so as to compel generations into forced labour.

Exploitation of Workers in Sindh

Today, Sindh has the highest rate of landlessness in Pakistan. More than 40 percent of the land in Sindh is tenanted out by big landlords. Conversely, landlords in Punjab are much smaller than those in Sindh, with an average holding of only seven acres of land, compared to a landlord in Sindh, who is on average estimated to own 28 acres of land.

While the position of the poorer cultivators in other provinces of the country is by no means ideal, human development indicators in rural areas of Sindh are amongst the worst in Pakistan.

It should thus not be surprising that of the over 1.7 million people estimated to be engaged in bonded labour in Pakistan by the ILO, the majority of them are landless tillers (‘haris’) in Sindh. In Sindh, the problem of bonded labour is increasing. In earlier times, only big landlords used to have bonded labourers but now even mid-range farmers are enslaving desperate people by lending them money.

During the time that they are bonded, labourers and their families are kept in detention-like conditions. Often the wives and children of male labourers are also held in captivity. Recent statistics complied by NGOs working for the abolishment of bonded labour in different parts of Sindh estimate that there were some 1.2 to 1.3 million people engaged in bonded labour in this province alone.

Sindh tried to introduce some legislative protection for the vast majority of its tenants subsequent to partition. In 1950, the Sindh Assembly passed the Sindh Tenancy Act. This legal measure aimed to simultaneously address the duties of tenants and landlords and to provide means for the division of produce between them. However, the Act was never properly implemented, and it was also manipulated by landlords to continue extracting surplus from their tenants.

Under this Act, neither the ‘hari’ nor his family is required to provide free labour to the ‘zamindar’. But as neither tasks nor working hours are strictly specified, determining what constitutes free labour and what does not is difficult and subject to the individual discretion of the landlord. Resultantly, disturbing cases of entire families being subjugated by their landlord to pay back insurmountable debts which have accumulated over the generations recurrently keep cropping up.

In theory, all bonded labourers should have been freed under the subsequently introduced Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act of 1992, and those responsible for keeping them in bondage should have been prosecuted. However, such is not the case since the political and financial strength of the landlord’s allows them to continue using bonded labourers with impunity.

The lack of empowerment of the rural workforce is another reason which allows this exploitative practice to persist. Given the vulnerability of the underprivileged landless poor, the need to strike some sort of a balance in the asymmetric power relations between landlord and cultivators is evident.

Yet although Pakistan’s Industrial Relations Ordinance of 1969 (IRO) provides for the right of industrial workers to form trade unions, even if these unions are subject to a variety of restrictions.

On the other hand, Pakistani law is particularly hard on agricultural workers who are even denied the right to form unions, which prevents them from bargaining collectively, or making any demands on their employers, or check against brutalities like forced labour.

Unless something is done to drastically improve the circumstances of the marginalized rural tillers of the land, boosting agricultural productivity to achieve food sovereignty, and alleviating rural poverty will remain but elusive goals.

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Author Information

Ahmad Ali has a Masters degree in Financial Economics from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). He teaches A-Levels Economics and Advanced Placement Economics at the Lahore Grammar School and Lahore American School.

One Response to “The Menace of Bonded Labour in Pakistan’s Agricultural Sector”

  1. sadia #

    Its true that bonded labor is an debatable and serious issue in Pakistan but it is really astonishing that very few attention is being paid to this inhumane issue by the government, welfare organizations and by the political parties. We see the bonded labor in every pat of the country from the brick kilns of Punjab to the mine workers in Baluchistan, and the worst agricultural bonded labors in Sindh and Khayber Pakhtunkha.

    January 12, 2012 at 10:23 am Reply

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