If Walls Could Talk, They Would Bleed

Syeda Ghulam Fatima, the daughter of a trade unionist for workers’ rights in Pakistan, would often see old men and women with torn up clothes and worn out faces crying in her living room. Too young to understand, she never forgets this sight. “There was a woman, close to my mother’s age, and she said this ‘I always considered him like a son but he tore my clothes, pulled my hair, and snatched my daughter away’ and she was forced to continue work because she was under debt and all she did was cry to my father to somehow bring her daughter back,” said Fatima. She was too young to understand ‘forced slavery’ but the tears of such men and women kept her up at night for days. 

It was a rage and sadness inside Fatima that propelled her to see the place these people worked despite her father asking her to remember them only in her prayers and for her to continue studying. She recalls her first visit to these brick kilns to be a shock. 

“I heard the women yelling ‘go away, beti (daughter), they will come and take you away too.’ Instead of the girls having a pen and a book in their hands, they had blisters on their fingers from working in these brick kilns – and I just remember being deeply hurt,” Fatima recalled. Only once in 8th grade, did Fatima talk to her school friends and thought about bringing education to these workers. 

“We knew there would be no light in the kilns so we gathered up some money and bought a lamp to help us walk through the pitch dark road and forests,” said Fatima. “I had no idea what the term ‘advocacy’ and ‘activism’ but I did know that we were going there to teach them how to say ‘no’ and also to teach them hisaab (maths) – so that they can learn accountability.” It was only one month when one of the teachers these girls went with got beaten up and cursed at by brick kiln workers and Fatima witnessed the abuse these men and women lived with. 

Pakistan’s brick kiln industry is one of the most profitable sectors of the country, employing more than 4.5 million people while producing 45 billion bricks each year (Freedom Collaborative, 2021). Across the 20,000 brick kilns existing in the country, many of the workers are shackled under debt bondage – a form of forced labor.

Syeda Ghulam Fatima is one of the social workers in Pakistan who has devoted her life to ending forced slavery in brick kilns by creating Bonded Labor Liberation Front – an organization that works to set up Freedom centers across the rural areas of Pakistan. According to the Freedom Collective report (2021) poor workers take an advance from their employers in exchange for constructing bricks but often are unable to repay the loan due to poor conditions and their future generations get trapped in a vicious cycle of debt.  

 She knew early on that in this country the fight against the powerful is a dangerous one. “I was supporting the poor without any resources and they [authoritative and influential figures] had the power and they made sure to use it.” However, Fatima took this fight to the court showing them cases of injustice and proving the existence of forced slavery. In 1988, a landmark decision by Pakistan’s Supreme Court passed that prohibited bonded labor. Fatima celebrated this as a victory.



“Our first protest was at the Minar-e-Pakistan’s Azadi Chowk in Lahore with around 300,000 workers where we appreciated the government’s support in not only passing this ruling but also involving us during the discussions,” said Fatima. While the Supreme Court had passed the ruling, it remained largely ineffective and Fatima’s struggles only became more violent.

“That part of my past still haunts me, I can’t sleep for days,” Fatima said. “It became a norm for 5-7 guys to stop my vehicle, pull my hair, beat me up, and leave me on the road after I had visited one of the brick kilns.” She considers these men to be associated with the owners of the brick kilns and over the years, she continued to face assasination threats not only towards her but her family as well. 

 “My brother was repeatedly shot that his leg was amputated. I, myself, walk barely after having so much beating,” Fatima recalled. 

The Bonded Labor Abolishment Act of 1992 was the first time the law clearly outlawed bonded labor by stating “[n]o person shall make any advance under, or in pursuance of, the bonded labour system or compel any person to render any bonded labour or another form of forced labour.” Under this law, brick kiln workers enjoyed a fair work and it criminalized the abuse of brick kiln owners. However, the Punjab Bill on the Prohibition of Child Labor in Brick Kilns of 2016 is what Fatima calls a “direct contradiction” to the Act of 1992. 

 “In the media’s eyes, the rules of 1992 are there but then the government legalized it in 2016 and that’s not talked about,” said Fatima. While the 1992 Act discounted a system of workers getting an advance on their wages, also called peshgi, the 2016 Act allows employers to give pehsgi to workers – equal to six times a worker’s wage for one wage period.

Many kiln managers provide loans to workers who are then unable to repay them and have no choice but to work as slaves — a practice that is widespread in southern Punjab and Sindh despite being outlawed in 1992.

It is also illegal in Pakistan to employ someone who is under 16 years of age. Yet almost 70 percent of bonded labourers in Pakistan are children, who make up over one third of the four million or so people working at brick kilns in Pakistan. Religious minorities such as Christians are more likely to suffer in this cycle of debt. 


The buildings we walk into are all made up of bricks and if you look closely at how bricks are made, they are red…maybe its the blood of the workers.” 



38-year-old, Maqsooda Bibi, belonging to the Christian community, wakes up at 2 am everyday and makes bricks with extremely cold water and cement with her 18 year old daughter working alongside her. 

 “The conditions are terrible and there are no facilities if one gets cut or hurt in other ways,” said Bibi. According to Fatima, if women have to go to the toilet they have to go in the open, either late night or early morning. 

A mother to 4 daughters and 1 son, getting her children married is her first priority. 

“My three daughters and one son is already married. I am marrying her [18-year-old daughter] off to in six days,” said Bibi. “Our life just has so many obstacles, I couldn’t afford to put her through school.” 

 Most of these workers, especially women, get trapped in the horrors of debt bondage after marrying into a family that has already taken a debt. Bibi’s father-in-law had to marry off his kids and so he took out an advance from his employers but as soon as passed away, the debt passed on to Bibi’s husband. 

 “The debt has increased because I had to take out a loan when my son was 5 months old and got really sick.” said Bibi who is currently under a debt of more than 70,000 rupees while she only makes 600-800 rupees in a week. 

 According to Fatima, the government of Punjab has established fixed wages for brick kiln workers. The sum of 1036 rupees has been fixed by the government for the production of 1000 bricks. But still, the employees receive no more than 400 to 650 for 1000 bricks. 

 However, according to Former Secretary General of the Brick Kiln Owner Association Pakistan, Ghulam Murtaza, the blame is shared equally. 

“It becomes a culture that a family who comes to work on brick kilns does not accept the daily wage rather asks for more. The family head asks for an advance and if this is not given then they refuse to work,” said Murtaza. 



According to Murtaza the family patriarch often puts his own family in a compromising position where they have to pay off such a huge debt when they should not be asking for such a huge amount of loan in the first place. 

 “The entire family that agrees to work in brick kilns – the family head deploys his women and children and makes them work and brick kiln owners have no concern with this,” 

 Murtaza has worked with the Brick Kiln Owners Association to build a bridge with them and the government and believes that workers issues can only be resolved through a system of ‘fact finding.’ 

 “There are problems with workers and there are also issues with the owners as well. The treatment can only happen if we develop a system of fact finding and determine what is the root cause of such evils,” said Murtaza. 

 One of the other workers that has requested to keep his identity anonymous cares only about his daughter’s safety after he tried to arrange meetings with other workers to demand a fair wage. 

 “ The owners called me to the office and beat me. They made the other workers join in. Then they took off all my clothes and tied me to a tree. I begged them not to do it. They left me there for hours. I tried to escape at night. I padlocked my family in the house and I ran into the fields. I came straight to Fatima. Before we could return for my family, the police had helped the owners break into my house. And my daughters were paraded naked in the streets.”


 Bibi and these other workers are one of the 4.5 million workers that are continuing to live in a cycle of poverty, abuse, and slavery. Fatima’s tireless efforts with her organization continue till this day and she refuses to give up. 

 “The buildings we walk into are all made up of bricks and if you look closely at how bricks are made, they are red…maybe its the blood of the workers.”