The present project is an expansion and continuation of on-going technical cooperation under taken by ILO in Pakistan since 2001. These include two phases of the sub-regional project funded by the Netherlands entitled Preventing and Eliminating Bonded Labour in South Asia (PEBLISA). The project follows a three tier strategy: 1) strengthening national legal and policy frameworks on bonded labour; 2) increasing the capacity of the government, workers organizations, and employers organizations and other social partners, law enforcement and other agencies to tackle the issue effectively; and 3) field-testing tripartite models for the prevention of bonded labour and for the rehabilitation of bonded labourers, in particular through pilot initiatives in the brick-kiln sector in Punjab, to develop a regulatory framework, improve legal implementation and provide other social services. The project’s approaches will be mainstreamed in social partners’ activities and in major poverty reduction programmes of government, donors and civil society targeting the very poor.
The project will be working under the general guidance and coordination mechanism of the National Committee on Abolition of Bonded Labour, which is a statutory, tripartite-plus standing committee set up under the National Policy and Plan of Action for the Abolition of Bonded Labour. The project will launch a national level program on awareness raising and capacity building of ILO constituents, civil society and non traditional partners like religious leaders for action against bonded labour. In line with directions of the Supreme Court, government will be assisted in the reform of the legal frame work.
The issue of forced labour in Pakistan until about the late 1990s was a veiled and highly politicised one. Not only was there an element of denial by key national stakeholders due to vested interests despite Pakistan having ratified the ILO Conventions 29 and 109 as early as 1960’s, the existence of national laws such as the Bonded Labour System (abolition) Act 1992 and the Children (Pledging of Labour) Act 1933 and other national policies most notably the National Policy and Plan of Action for the Elimination of Bonded Labour etc, but there was an element of complacency and inaction as a whole by national actors. This inaction was mainly the result of little empirical knowledge regarding the issue, a general lack of institutional capacity to take appropriate action and a socio-cultural acceptance of this age-old and traditional system of labour relation in the highly stratified social framework of the country. The issue is complex and multi-tiered linked directly to the issues of poverty (both human poverty and income poverty), social exclusion (especially political and social disenfranchisement), general widespread unemployment in the country, lack of effective social protection and entrenched cultural practices.
Within this milieu ILO launched its first intervention in collaboration with government and key social partners in 2002 to assist a group of about 700 families (mainly haris – agricultural workers) who were released from debt bondage in rural and peri-urban Sindh. The project sought to establish integrated socio-economic models of direct assistance to these families and concurrently work towards creating a conducive national environment for their assistance. The original project (funded under the Dutch TCRAM) went into a second phase in 2003 in which the strategy for institutional development was integrated as a major component along with the direct support actions. In addition over these two phases an effort was made to generate knowledge on the incidence of bonded labour in Pakistan, so as to facilitate informed national programming and action.
Forced labour in Pakistan, primarily in the form of debt bondage, is found amongst agriculture workers in Sindh and many areas of Punjab. 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. Bonded labourers are mostly from socially excluded groups, including minorities and migrants who suffer additionally from discrimination and political disenfranchisement.
In its most typical manifestation, a worker – usually an adult man - takes a loan or salary advance known as “Peshgi” from an employer, labour contractor or landlord. Then the debtor - and often family members as well - is obliged to work for that person for reduced wages until the debt is repaid. This 'typical' model of debt bondage masks a wide range of situations, from the relatively less severe and short-term forms to severe, long-term abuse of human rights. Women may be forced to work for little or no wages to repay the debts incurred by their spouses or male family members. The labour of children may be pledged to repay loans taken by parents. Inherited debt can result in bondage that is passed down from generation to generation. Since no written contract exists the worker is vulnerable to all forms of exploitation. This problem becomes more complex due to political and social exclusion of bonded labourers.
The ultimate beneficiaries of this project are women, men and children who are in or vulnerable to bonded labour. They can be divided into three main sub-categories:
- Currently bonded labourers (who are predominantly men) and their family members (women and children), with particular emphasis on persons who have been trapped for extended periods of time in severe forms of debt bondage and whose immediate need is for identification and release from bondage.
- Women and men who are at risk of falling into bondage, including some who may already be in short-term bondage.
- Families that have been legally released from bondage and require social and economic assistance to re-establish their lives.
The project approach includes upstream work mainly focussing on policy/ law revision for creating a national conducive environment and institutional capacity development for its effective implementation at the national, provincial and district levels. The approach also includes knowledge base strengthening through research and analysis and its dissemination for mass awareness for mobilising public action. At the downstream level, the project seeks to leverage national programmes and plans to link direct social development services to the targeted bonded labourers. It seeks to link up with and strengthen public and civil society (particularly employers and workers) institutions to address the issue of bonded labour at their respective levels through development of partnerships. The thrust will be towards institutionalisation and national ownership for sustainability.
The key implementation mechanism will be the National Committee on Bonded Labour, established under the National Policy on Abolition of Bonded Labour, and responsible for all policy and programmatic initiatives of government of Pakistan on bonded labour. The National Committee will provide general guidance to the project, will ensure linkages with other relevant national programmes, and ensure smooth functioning between provinces and districts.
Four provincial tripartite coordination committees will be formed for better inter-departmental coordination and policy formulation. Similarly District Vigilance Committees (established under the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act) in target districts, with tripartite-plus composition will ensure better on ground implementation of project activities.
The strategy will be to leverage existing institutional mechanisms to mainstream the issue of bonded labour into the regular national, provincial and local development plans related to poverty alleviation, that include provision of education and health facilities, and Microfinance services to vulnerable segments of Pakistani society and the provision of income generation and employment opportunities.
For implementation of project activities the outreach and existing institutional strengths of workers and employers organisations will be tapped. The strength of workers’ organisations lies in their ability to organise the target groups so that they can engage in dialogue with employers to improve their conditions of work, while working with employers to seek enhanced productivity and therefore ensure that enterprises remain competitive. The new Global Compact initiative will provide a vehicle for the corporate sector to engage constructively with the project in the promotion of fundamental principles and rights at work. In addition, the strategy will be to enhance the influence of social partners in the local, provincial and national policy and programme planning as well as increase their respective capacities to provide improved services to their own members through extensive capacity building and institutional strengthening exercises.
Gender dimensions of bonded labour require careful attention due to the severe disadvantage faced by women that include for example not only their labour exploitation, but also exploitation of their fundamental rights (e.g. women and children are kept as collateral by the loaner in case the men need to travel outside, sexual exploitation is rampant and most serious aspect is that women and children remain in bonded labour even after the male responsible for taking a loan/advance dies).
The project will promote gender equality by mainstreaming gender concerns in all aspects of the project, from its policy level work to its field activities. This will be done through interventions that are women specific for affirmative action purposes (as done in the past phase) to alter the condition of women in bonded labour. In addition, interventions will include mixed activities, where appropriate to alter the status of women in debt bondage and power relations between women and men. The project as such will explore ways to engage men as allies in the promotion of gender equality and women workers rights. The proposed project will collaborate very closely with the ongoing major Women’s Employment Concerns and Working Conditions Project in Pakistan.