A Pakistani labour activist who has devoted her life to saving scores of her countrymen from bonded labour was honoured with a Global Citizen for Leadership in Civil Society at the Clinton Global Citizen ceremony in New York on Sunday night.
Syeda Ghulam Fatima, 47, was recognized for her efforts to establish fair labour standards in Pakistan.
The formidable Syeda, the daughter of a trade unionist, has been a campaigner for most of her life and is best known for her work towards ending bonded labour in Pakistan’s brick kilns.
She became associated with the industry during her university days when she used to volunteer at the kilns to teach the workers.
According to Syeda, the total estimated number of kiln workers in Pakistan is around 4.5 million while the total number of kilns is not less than 20,000.
In the Punjab – Paksitan’s largest and wealthiest province – there are around 2.5 million kiln workers working at more than 10,000 kilns.
“For me, red brick represents blood — of the kiln worker who makes it. Bricks make finest buildings but its maker earns nothing”, Syeda says.
The kilns are big business in Pakistan and profits depend on the enslavement of thousands of the most impoverished and downtrodden people in the country.
The way it works is owners of brick kilns extend small loans to desperate, illiterate labourers from rural areas of Pakistan, on condition that the person agrees to work for a short period of time.
To sweeten the deal, the labourers are also offered food and accommodation.
But once the agreed upon length of time is complete, the labourer finds that his debt has actually increased due to accrued interest and the costs of accommodation. From this moment on, the labourer is trapped in a form of slavery. The longer he works, the larger his debt grows. He is condemned to a lifetime of hard labour with no compensation. And when he dies — the debt is passed on to his children.
The problem is widespread.
Forced labour is illegal in Pakistan but kiln owners wield extraordinary power and influence in the country leading to labour laws remaining unenforced.
Workers are denied education, prevented from learning about their rights, and routinely intimidated.
Through her organization, the Bonded Labour Liberation Front (BLLF), Syeda has established Freedom Centres where workers can go for protection and legal counsel.
For her work, she’s been threatened, beaten, electrocuted, and shot at.
Alongside her husband Mehar Safdar, Syeda runs BLLF from a small, humble storefront in Lahore.
Whilst the couple and her supporters have been campaigning for decades, she was unexpectedly brought to the limelight earlier this year after an American photojournalist – Brandon Stanton who publishes his under the name of Humans of New York (HONY) – did a story on Syeda.
In HONY’s Facebook page, Mr Stanton posted a picture of Syeda with the caption: “Meet Syeda Ghulam Fatima. Described as a modern day Harriet Tubman, Fatima has devoted her life to ending bonded labour. She has been shot, electrocuted, and beaten numerous times for her activism. Quite literally, she places herself between the workers and their owners. The organisation she leads, the Bonded Labour Liberation Front, is small but determined. It is working to set up Freedom Centres throughout rural Pakistan so that every bonded labourer has access to advocacy and legal aid. Fatima operates on a very small budget. So as we learn her story over the next few days, anyone wishing to help empower Fatima can donate to Bonded Labour Liberation Front…”
Stanton also appealed to the world to help Syeda.
The response was staggering.
In a matter of days, donations for BLLF had topped more than a million pounds.
“This was motivated by nothing else than genuine compassion and a desire to empower a woman who has devoted her life to freeing people trapped in modern slavery,” says Stanton.
It was, unsurprisingly, a shock to Syeda.
“We took that photographer as a routine visitor and appreciated him for highlighting the cause with no expectation. Our mission is not to get huge grants but continue to highlight bonded labour”, she says.
But, Syeda says, it is also an endorsement of her life’s work and the horrific exploitation of the poor by the wealthy.
“The response of people across the world highlights the importance of this subject — of how much this form of labour is hated and rejected. This message is an endorsement of our view. This response is a loud and clear message to Pakistan, its government, administrative machinery, brick kiln owners and civil society.”