Bhatta Mazdoors : The struggle continues
Posted by Taimur Rahman on March 24, 2006
Published in The Post 24/03/2006
The life of Bhatta Mazdoors is a world unto itself. Cramped in their bare brick hovels they continue to live in a period of history that is more reminiscent of medievalism or slavery than the modern world of a concrete jungle that runs on their very labour-power. Not merely the method of production of bricks but even the mode of living of these unfortunate people remains frozen in an obscure time period.
In the late 1960s this inaccessible world was interrupted by a powerful social movement for the rights of bonded labourers. Although the beginnings of the movement coincided with the populist upsurge of the late sixties and continued uninterrupted through the 1970s, it wasn’t until the 1980s that it assumed centre-stage and caught the public’s imagination. Perhaps it was the fact that while other social and political movements imploded, the Bhatta Mazdoor movement continued to gather pace, or perhaps it was simply the bravery of the movement in exposing the decrepit and slave-like conditions in the brick production industry, in either case, the Bonded Labour and Bhatta Mazdoor movement became so powerful in the 1980s that even the establishment recognized that the matter required immediate attention.
It was as a result of a combination of legal and social pressures, in which no small part was played by the press, that the Supreme Court of Pakistan took the decision in 1988 to abolish the peshgi system (the peshgi system is responsible for keeping bhatta workers in a cycle of debt bondage). The decision was further consolidated in the 1992 Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act that is a powerful and progressive piece of legislation.
The Act was clearly worded such as to leave no doubt whatsoever in anyone’s mind where the law stood with respect to bonded labour. The Act stated that, “Every obligation of a bonded labourer to repay any bonded debt shall stand extinguished” and that “no suit or other proceeding shall lie in any civil court, tribunal or before any other authority for the recovery of any bonded debt.” Further, not only shall any decree or order for the recovery of bonded debt passed before the Act be considered null and void but all property taken from bonded labourers or their families or mortgaged either by a creditor or by any court, tribunal or authority for the repayment of a bonded debt shall be restored within 90 days to the bonded labourer. Every bonded labour who had been detained in civil prison was to be released from detention immediately. Any creditor who attempted to collect any peshgi would be handed a criminal sentence of up to three years in prison and a minimum of Rs 15,000 in fines. And any bhatta owner engaging in the practice of bonded labour shall be liable to a prison sentence of two to five years and a minimum fine of Rs 50,000. Similar legislation also stated that all bhattas were to be registered and that labour practices were to be brought into accordance with industrial labour laws (including minimum wage laws, old age benefit, social security and so on). Needless to say this represented an unprecedented and complete victory in the legal sphere for the Bhatta Mazdoors. However, the real conditions of Bhatta Mazdoors did not change substantially.
The bhatta owners counter-attacked with two measures. First, they went into appeal in 1993 in the Federal Shariat Court. They were no doubt encouraged by the 1992 ruling of the Shariat Court against the 1972 land reforms and expected a similar reactionary decision for themselves. Their appeal to the Shariat Court remained buried for 17 years and during this entire period the bhatta owners continued to extract bonded labour from the bhatta mazdoors under the false pretext that they had obtained a “stay order” against the decision of the Supreme Court from the Federal Shariat Court. Secondly, the bhatta owners began to dedicate enormous resources to the creation of a lobby within the law enforcement agencies that would prevent the implementation of any laws. This strategy included various aspects, ranging from bribes in the form of bricks for the thanas (police stations) to buying out bailiffs of the High Court who would inform the bhatta owners in advance about any chhapa (raid) ordered by the courts. Finally, physical disincentives, including a good beating, were never far behind in ensuring compliance with the now illegal system of the bhatta owners.
I had the opportunity of personally viewing the character of physical intimidation that goes into maintaining this bhatta system. Largely out of idealistic reasons, a group of our friends decided to play our part in the implementation of minimum wage laws with respect to bhatta workers (the Minimum Wages Board has recently ruled that a minimum of Rs. 290 per thousand bricks is to be paid to bhatta workers). We printed an innocuous leaflet explaining what the law states about minimum wages for bhatta workers and began distributing it along Raiwind Road, where there is a small concentration of bhattas. One fine day, as we were visiting the vicinity of a bhatta, we were accosted by a burly man with an accompanying armed guard. Without so much as batting an eye he threatened our group of activists with dire consequences unless we stopped our campaign. Thankfully there were about eight of us otherwise I am sure he would have carried out part of his threat there and then. Anyway, with no appetite either for his death threats or for showing off our machismo muscle power, we ignored him entirely. But later that very day the bhatta maalik (owner) and six of his cronies picked up the bhatta workers, brought them to his “office”, interrogated them and roundly thrashed those who were in any way connected with this minimum wage campaign. I would mention these bhatta maaliks by name but I do not want to further endanger those bhatta workers who have already been beaten up. The name though is largely irrelevant because this is a very common practice in nearly all the bhattas of Pakistan.
Similarly, I had occasion to visit another bhatta close to Kot Radha Kishan. This time my hosts were the bhatta maaliks themselves and one of our guides proudly told us the punishment meted out to a bhatta worker who was trying to flee the bhatta. He was beaten, made to walk barefoot on the boiling bhatta, and then his face was blackened with soot and he was paraded around the entire area so that others would know the consequences of attempting to flee. I tried to locate this bhatta worker whose name was Mukhtar, but I could not find him. His relatives however confirmed the entire incident. The bhatta maaliks attempted to justify their action by painting a clearly distorted picture of the bhatta workers. The maaliks argued that “these people are lazy”, “they make contracts that they do not keep”, “they spend all their money on buying battery cells for tape recorders and watching movies on VCD”, and that “they are immoral”. When I asked about the buying and selling of bhatta workers, the bhatta maaliks confirmed the general impression. They told me that once the maaliks buy up the “debt” of the bhatta worker’s family from another maalik, sometimes also making an additional loan to the worker, the bhatta worker’s family is then transported to the next bhatta.
I further discovered from these bhatta maaliks (who I assume have accurate information about their own business) that the demand for bricks has been rising over the last decade and new bhattas have been popping up rapidly, especially around big cities like Lahore. Given that the technology of brick manufacture has hardly changed for thousands of years, it would be fair to say that the number of bhatta mazdoors, which is already estimated in hundreds of thousands, is probably increasing. On my way back from Kasur via a smaller, less travelled route, I counted 17 bhattas on the visible horizon at one time. On the entire journey I must have easily come across more than 100 on the main road (including one with a tiled colourful chimney). Even a superficial glance showed that the brick industry was thriving but unfortunately the same could not be said for the bhatta mazdoors. I could not help but feel that the setting up of new bhattas with the same slave conditions was a crime and the negligence of the government was only compounding the problem.
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