Nov 30, 2006

Sindh: Slave Labour Still Common

According to figures reported by the Asian Development Bank (ADB), there are at least 1.7 million landless agricultural workers and sharecroppers in Sindh Province. Most of them are held in debt bondage by landlords.

LAHORE, 28 November (IRIN) - Eight years ago Munnu Bheel began his quest in the southern Pakistani province of Sindh to secure the release of nine family members who had been kidnapped by a local landlord. Now, despite hunger strikes, court appeals and petitions to authorities, Munnu Bheel's family members remain missing. They include his mother, Akho; his wife, Mauta; his daughters Momal and Dheeli; his sons Chaman and Kalji and his brother, Jalal.

At the time of their abduction, Munnu Bheel's children were aged between five and 15 years. Today, it is not known if they are alive or dead. Munnu Bheel was, till 1996, a landless agricultural worker, or hari, based on a land estate in Sindh.

According to figures reported by the Asian Development Bank (ADB), there are at least 1.7 million such landless agricultural workers (haris) and sharecroppers in five districts of Sindh Province (Thatta, Dadu, Badin, Mirpurkhas and Umerkot). Most of them are held in debt bondage by landlords who still hold almost complete sway over many parts of rural Sindh.

In most cases, poverty stricken families have accepted cash advances from landlords to survive. In return, they are expected to be available to work, often for no wages, from morning to nightfall. Women and children form a part of the labour force. Apart from their work in the fields, many haris are made to work as unpaid domestic help. The bonded labourers include both Muslims and low-caste Hindus.

Since they are unable to pay back the debt, and are sometimes forced to accept more loans to meet urgent needs such as medical care or a marriage in the family, they cannot escape bondage or slavery. According to former Senator Iqbal Haider, Secretary-General of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), the haris are frequently guarded to prevent their escape, and sometimes held in fetters or even in cages.

"Women have in many cases been subjected to rape; their plight is terrible and they are abused by the landlords, their sons or other employees at the farms," Haider told IRIN.

Landlords are also involved in trafficking bonded labourers who are unable to pay their debts, with the haris seen by them as their property, HRCP says. Bonded labourers are sold by one landlord to another, often for a price higher than the debt they had incurred with their previous landlord, thereby increasing the debt burden of the hari.

In 1996, after receiving a complaint about bonded labour, banned under the Bonded Labour Systems (Abolition) Act of 1992, HRCP's Special Task Force on Bonded Labour, based in Hyderabad, Sindh's second largest city, notified the local administration. In April of that year, 59 haris were rescued from the estate of landlord Abdur Rehman Marri at Jhole, in the Sanghar district of Central Sindh.

Two years later, in retaliation, Abdur Rehman Marri and his henchmen reportedly raided a village in Mirpurkhas district, just south of Sanghar, where Bheel and his family had taken up residence, severely beat the haris present there and took away nine of Bheel's family members.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of other haris toil as slaves on estates across Sindh, in return for meagre quantities of food and clothing. In theory, all of them should have been released under the 1992 Bonded Labour Systems (Abolition) Act, but the political power of the landlords, combined with their influence over police and local administrations has prevented this from happening, HRCP says.