Lahore: Bonded labour remains one of the most reprehensible and widespread forms of exploitation in Pakistan even 20 years after the promulgation of a law to abolish it, and therefore the state and civil society both must redouble their efforts to eliminate the evil. This was the consensus at a two-day wide-ranging consultation among organisations working for the elimination of bonded labour that concluded in Lahore yesterday. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) had organised the consultation.
The participants agreed that since bonded labour was universally recognised as a slavery-like practice the state had an obligation to attach top priority to its eradication. The way the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act of 1992 had been left unimplemented did not suggest that the gravity of the problem, that affects the rights of several million people, had been adequately realised.
The meeting noted that following the devolution of the subject of labour to the provinces only Punjab had adopted a slightly amended version of the 1992 Act. The other provincial governments were asked to expedite issuance of their own laws on the subject. However, it was necessary to ensure that no provincial enactment on abolition of bonded labour offered the bonded workers less than what the 1992 Act did.
The participants appreciated the decision of the Punjab government to allocate for the second time funds out of its development budget for its bonded labour elimination programme and extend it to four new districts. The meeting hoped that it would be possible soon to bring the whole of the province under the project. The other provincial governments were requested to draw up similar or improved programmes for the uplift of bonded workers.
The meeting scrutinised the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1992 and made a number of recommendations, including the following:
The law relies heavily on district officials and lacks an effective mechanism to oversee their performance. It is proposed that each provincial government should have a duly empowered implementation cell, including senior department heads (home, labour, police et al) to regularly monitor implementation of the law and take action against any functionaries that fail to discharge their responsibilities.
The rules under a new provincial law must be issued as soon as a law is made.
Quite a few functionaries do not take up their assignments for want of a notification. The system of notifying implementation authorities should be scrapped and the relevant officials clearly designated in the law/rules.
All district administrations must be told to create Vigilance Committees by a fixed date. The committees must meet every month, as required under the law, the quorum should be on the low side and the committee members who do not take their duties seriously should be replaced.
The penalties for keeping the workers in bondage should be enhanced and enforcement ensured.
The law has not been invoked to punish its violators mainly because the victims – the bonded labour – do not have the strength and resources to prosecute the offenders. The state should assume the responsibility for prosecuting the violators of the law and their offences should be made non-bailable.
The participants received a detailed briefing on the International Labour Organization (ILO) projects in the area of bonded labour and expressed the view that the government of Pakistan must fully implement the ILO conventions ratified by it. Further, bonded labour issues must be included in all new policies and on the agenda of tripartite labour conferences.
The meeting called upon the government to strive to meet the conditions on good governance imposed by the European Union to qualify for Generalised System of Preferences for the matter concerned the people’s vital socio-economic interests.
The meeting was of the view that the issue of bonded labour had to be seen in the context of the rights and problems of labour as a whole. The trade unions in particular, and all other civil society associations in general, must accept bonded labour’s concerns as their own. It was also necessary to put reform aimed at ending bonded labour and at the uplift of workers and peasants on the agenda of political parties.
The meeting also discussed the difficulties created by ignorance of the law against bonded labour even in judicial circles, the hardships faced by bonded workers in getting their identity cards, the problems in securing the minimum wage, and in pursuing cases under laws about minimum wages or payment of wages.
The participants resolved to carry out the decisions of the meeting collectively and severally and to hold rallies throughout the country on the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery.
Prominent amongst the participants were representatives of PILER, SPARC, Bhandaar Hari Sangat, Green Rural Workers Development Organisation, Bonded Labour Liberation Front, Mehergarh, ILO, HRCP, and several lawyers.