The only way out is death’: The women of Pakistan forced to spend their lives working in slave labour after inheriting their relatives’ or husbands’ debts
- Muhammed Muheisen visited brick kilns to photograph terrible conditions faced by thousands of ‘bonded labourers’
- The women spend seven days a week carrying out hard labour to repay debts taken out by their families
- The workers are found in agriculture, carpet-making and brick factories and do not have running water or bathrooms
- Labourer Amna Bhatti says there is no escape: ‘We are poor. We will always stay poor.’
These photos show the faces of the Pakistani women who are forced to spend their lives in slavery – because their families are in debt.
Living without running water, and often trapped by their employers for the rest of their lives, these women are forced to work in brick kilns, agricultural fields and other hard labour industries to clear debts which overshadow their families’ lives.
Associated Press photographer Muhammed Muheisen took the photos in his home country to show the difficult conditions faced by the women who work as ‘bonded labourers’.
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In her father’s footsteps: Naila Liyaqat, 16, a Pakistani brick factory worker, at the site of her brick factory in Mandra, near Rawalpindi, Pakistan. Naila’s father is in debt to his employer to the tune of around 300,000 rupees, which is approximately £1,800
Factory worker: Samina Manzoor, 27, a Pakistani brick factory worker, shares a debt with her husband of 300,000 rupees which is about £1,800. Samina is just an example of the thousands of women working in Pakistan to repay debts
Trapped: Raina Anwar, 24, a Pakistani brick factory worker, at the site of her work in Mandra, near Rawalpindi, Pakistan. Raina and her husband are in debt to their employer the amount of 190,000 rupees, about £1,100. A person becomes a bonded labourer when they are made to work to repay a loan
No escape: Amna Bhatti, 60, a Pakistani brick factory worker, at the site of her work in Mandra, near Rawalpindi, Pakistan. Amna is in debt to her employer for the amount of 150,000 rupees, about £900. She says: ‘Once you enter this road, the only way out is death’
But, tragically, these workers are just a handful of the hundreds of thousands of women across Pakistan who face the same fate.
A person becomes a bonded labourer when they are made to work as repayment for a loan. This loan is often taken out by a family member who has since died.
There are no reliable statistics about the number of Pakistanis living and working as bonded labourers.
But, according to the National Coalition Against Bonded Labor, which is made up of different organisations, they can be found across the country working in agriculture, the carpet-making industry, brick kilns and other industries.
Amna Bhatti has spent half a century shaping mud into bricks in a huge kiln south of the Pakistani capital, Islamabad.
She started by paying off her parents’ debt and now she’s paying off her late husband’s. She will probably spend the rest of her life as a bonded labourer.
Mrs Bhatti was 10 when she started working at the kiln to pay off her parents’ debt. Now, at 60, she is paying off the 250,000 rupees, around £1,500, her husband left behind when he died 12 years ago.
Illegal: Brick factory worker Nusrat Azhar, 29, holding her daughter, Noor, one. She works with her sister Shaziyya, 33, at a brick factory on the outskirts of Islamabad, Pakistan. Nusrat and Shaziyya inherited their father’s 400,000 rupee debt – which is around £2,400 – to their employer
Brick factory workers: Nasreen Ijaz, 24, with her daughter Attiya, 3, at the site of her work in Mandra, near Rawalpindi, Pakistan. Nasreen and her husband are in debt to their employer to the amount of 100,000 rupees, about £600
Bonded: Rubina Rafaqat, 22, with her child at the site of her work in Mandra, near Rawalpindi, Pakistan. Rubina and her husband are in debt to their employer the amount of 200,000 rupees, about £1,200. The labourers often have no proper living facilities or basic amenities, such as running water or bathrooms
She has managed to cut 100,000 rupees off that original loan, but has taken even more loans from her employer – so it is doubtful she will ever escape the debt.
Mrs Bhatti said: ‘We are poor, and we will always stay poor. When you enter this road the only way out of it is death.’
The labourers often have no proper living facilities or basic amenities, such as running water or bathrooms. They generally earn about 350 rupees per day for their hard work. This is a little over £2.
Bonded labour is the most widely used method of enslaving people around the world. A person starts work to repay a loan, usually inherited from a family member.
Hard worker: Maqbool Ghulam, 35, at the site of her brick favtory in Mandra, near Rawalpindi, Pakistan. Maqbool and her husband are in debt to their employer the amount of 250,000 rupees, about £1,500. Most bonded labourers earn just 350 rupees per day, which is just over £2
Najma Shahid, 25, at the site of her work in Mandra, near Rawalpindi, Pakistan, with her son Adil, six, who suffers from a fever. He sleeps on the ground wrapped with a shawl. Najma and her husband are in debt to their employer for the amount of 80,000 rupees, about £500
Emna Mohammed, 65, at the site of her work in Mandra, near Rawalpindi, Pakistan. Emna inherited her late husband’s 95,000 rupee debt to their employer. This is around £550. It is common for women to carry on working to repay a debt once the person who borrowed the money has died
The person is then tricked or trapped into working for very little or no pay, often for seven days a week.
The value of their work over the years is usually more than the original amount of money borrowed. But often the debts are so hard to escape, that it is passed on to future generations.
While working to repay debts their employer says they owe, the labourers are not allowed to work elsewhere.
Poverty and threats of violence force many bonded labourers to stay with their masters. If they left, they would not otherwise be able to eat or have a place to sleep.
Various forms of force can also be used to make sure they stay. In many cases they are kept under surveillance, sometimes under lock and key.
Life sentence: Navila Shirali, 17, at the site of her work in Mandra, near Rawalpindi, Pakistan. Navila works to clear her father’s debt to his employer, which is around 500,000 rupees, nearly £3,000. Navila will probably be working to repay the debt for the rest of her life
Fearful: Khurshid Mumtaz, 25, a Pakistani brick factory worker, comforts her crying daughter Haima, 4, at the site of her work in Mandra, near Rawalpindi, Pakistan. Khurshid and her husband are in debt to their employer the amount of 194,000 rupees, about £1,200. Women continue to work out of fear of poverty or violence
The debts also play an large part in human trafficking. People who are offered a ‘job’ abroad often borrow big sums of money to pay the traffickers. These sums cover the costs of their journey as well as a fee for finding a ‘job’ and is often borrowed against their family house or business.
But when it turns out that the promised job did not exist, the trafficked victim cannot leave until the debt is paid off. The victim might be threatened with violence, either on themselves or their families back home.
Debt bondage was used as a means of trapping labourers into working on plantations in Africa, the Caribbean and South-East Asia, after the abolition of the Transatlantic Slave Trade.
Ghaziya Iqbal, 35, breastfeeds her child Farman, nine months old, at the site of her work on the outskirts of Islamabad, Pakistan. Ghaziya and her husband are in debt to their employer. They owe around 250,000 rupees, which is about £1,500
Family suffering: Sofia Zahour, 25, a Pakistani brick factory worker, with her daughter Alina, 2, at the site of her work in Mandra, near Rawalpindi, Pakistan. Sofia and her husband are in debt to their employer for 400,000 rupees, about £2,400 debt
In South Asia, it is rooted in the caste system and predominately affects Dalits, the lowest caste called Untouchables. It still exists in agriculture, brick kilns, mills and factories. Bonded labour also remains a problem in some regions of South America.
In the Punjab region of India, hundreds of thousands men, women and children are forced to work as bonded labourers in quarries and brick kilns where they receive little or no pay in return for a loan, which is used for survival, including medical costs.
Today the International Labour Organisation estimates a minimum of 11.7 million people are in forced labour in the Asia-Pacific region. Most of those are in debt bondage.
Despite the fact that bonded labour is illegal, some governments are unwilling to enforce the law, or to ensure that those who profit from it are punished.
Widespread discrimination against some social groups means they have limited access to justice, education and ways to get themselves out of poverty.
Bonded labour exists in spite of being explicitly outlawed by the United Nations Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery (1956).