The Story of Syeda Fatima and the Bonded Laborers of Punjab

Many talk boldly against modern day slavery and yet, are equally bold in justifying this atrocity. Slavery is one of the most prevalent manifestations of the consequences caused by false superiority that comes with power. We have heard about it, we have talked about it, we may have protested against it but do we really know how close at home it is? Roughly 27 million people are enslaved all over the world today. That is twice the number of people taken from Africa during the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade. Slavery is overlooked because to most of us, it is a thing of the past.

“Brick kiln owners beat me with steel rods, they broke my leg and left me disabled.” 

“They raped me.”

“My family and I are forced to work and are beaten because we can’t pay our Rs. 30,000 debt.”

These are not the things you expect to hear in an era of constant progress where people are being educated about their rights but this is the reality about the brick kiln workers in Punjab who are imprisoned by bonded labor. Ho Yaqeen’s Episode 4 highlights the remarkable plight of Syeda Fatima, an on the ground abolitionist working to ensure that these brick kiln workers are treated humanely and are not enslaved by their employers. Brick kiln owners, like most enslavers, are powerful. Syeda Fatima has put hers and her family’s safety on the line as she battles for the freedom of these abused workers.

Lisa Kristine, a photographer and activist who focused her advocacy on modern day slavery, reiterates the story of her visit to brick kilns in India and Nepal. She described it vividly as somewhat like walking in a scene of Dante’s Inferno. Entire families worked for 16-17 hours a day, cloaked in a heavy blanket of dust, carrying bricks on their head within the premises of the scorching kiln. They were not given breaks for food or water, leaving them dehydrated and malnourished. She narrated the story of how her camera seized to work because of the pervasive heat and dust in the kiln that it had to be placed under an air conditioner every 20 minutes for it to be functional. If an inanimate object like a camera can’t stand the dire conditions of the brick kiln, how much more those who work there for practically every day for most of their lives?

The situation in the brick kilns of Punjab is no different. The laborers are devoid of any welfare from their employers. The brick kiln owners blatantly argued with Syeda Fatima when she confronted them about the way they treat their workers, saying: “It’s our right. We pay them.”  The workers and their families are enslaved for the rest of their lives over small debts, sold to other brick kiln owners, forced to work over promises of a better life for their children and lack of information about their rights. Syeda Fatima’s mission is to free them from bonded labor by enlightening them of what they are entitled to as human beings and as laborers even if it puts her safety at a great risk. Syeda Fatima’s brother himself suffered from the hands of their barbaric opponents who shot him in the kneecap, leaving him permanently disabled. Despite the threats and impediments Syeda Fatima has to battle, she remains persistent to pursue her aim of living to see brick kiln workers free from bonded labor.

Modern day slavery is not just a topic to be debated on, pondered upon or show sympathy onto. It is a skeleton collectively hidden in the closet by denial and lack of accountability. Ho Yaqeen’s episode 4 shows us that this is more than just an issue; this is the story of real people’s suffering and of slavery happening right before our eyes. I refuse to live in a world where products are given more value than the people who work to produce them. Let these stories awaken the Syeda Fatima hidden inside us; join the battle against modern day slavery.

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