Pakistan: A Slave’s Path to Freedom

Pakistan needs a Lincoln to abolish slavery

By , Der Spiegel  Dec 8, 2014

Photo Gallery: A Life of Slavery Photos
Diego Ibarra Sanchez/ DER SPIEGEL

For more than 16 years, Hanif Masih worked as an indentured servant in a brick factory in Pakistan. Then, an aid organization purchased his freedom. Though he remains extremely poor, he is one of the lucky ones.

On the day Hanif Masih is to be freed after spending half of his life as a slave, the 28 year old rubs olive oil into his hair. He wants the part to stay in place so he can look his best on such an important occasion.


He is standing in the courtyard of the brick factory where he has spent so many years working. There’s a massive smokestack in the background. The plant, about the size of a football field, is located in Kasur, a Pakistani city about 50 kilometers (31 miles) south of Lahore near the Indian border.Masih looks on as two men sitting on plastic chairs at a table complete a transaction that will change his life forever. Though there is a third chair available, Masih stands quietly next to it as if the matter at hand has nothing to do with him. Having long ago learned his place, he wouldn’t dare sit down.

One of the men is Yunus Fauji, the factory manager who owns Masih just as he owns the kilns and the wheel barrows. The other is Shahzad Kamran, who has come today to buy Masih’s freedom.

Fauji, the manager, with a scruffy beard, dirty clothing and a wool hat on his head, snaps his fingers, prompting his servant to bring the account book, a block of receipts, a ruler, pen and calculator. “And? Do you have the money with you?” he asks.

Buying Freedom

Kamran nods. He’s a small, skinny man in his late thirties with thinning hair. He pulls a few papers and bundle of cash out of his briefcase, 50,000 rupee notes worth about €390 ($478) that are bundled together with a rubber band.

Kamran is the founder of Vast Vision, a small Christian aid organization in Lahore that raises money to free slaves by paying off the debts that have kept them in servitude. Kamran chose to buy Masih’s freedom because he believes he has good prospects for leading a successful life outside of slavery.

Masih stands behind the two, completely still. He’s almost invisible. He looks a bit lost in his clothes, which are too big for him, but it could also just be because his body is so emaciated. His teeth are stained red from chewing betel nuts. He quietly looks on as Kamran counts the money one more time and slides the stack over to Fauji, who then counts it, folding the bills in half, placing them in his pocket and murmuring, “All right.”

As Fauji puts the money away, Masih’s eyes well up in tears. He lets Kamran, his benefactor, give him a hug. Then, without saying a word, Masih goes over to the accommodation where he lives together with his wife and two children. Speechless and crying, they hug him. They pack their belongings and head down to the street, where they say goodbye to friends who will have to stay behind in servitude. “I will never come back here,” Masih says. Free at last, he and his family climb into a rickshaw.

Slavery Remains a Global Problem

Kamran bought the family from a major property owner and influential regional politician named Nadeem Arun Khan, who also owns the brick factory and, by extension, the Masih family. Until now at least.

Until he was bought free, Masih had been one of an estimated 35.8 million people worldwide who are, according to the latest Global Slavery Index, still in servitude without any rights, liberty or freedom of movement, people who are forced to work for inadequate pay with the threat of violence. Factories, landowners and business people make a profit by controlling their lives, ordering them to do forced labor as lumberjacks in the Amazon, as harvest workers on African farms, as carpenters in Arab countries, as unskilled laborers on Thai fishing boats or as individuals forced into prostitution all over the world.

Slavery, a phenomenon thought by many to have disappeared long ago, can still be found in almost every country in the world. The only thing that has changed is the price. Whereas slaves in past centuries often cost the equivalent of $4,000 in today’s money, slaves now go for far less, with people in countries like India or Pakistan being sold for as little as $30 to $40, the slavery report says.

After India and China, Pakistan is the country that is home to the most people living under slavery-like conditions. The country has over 2 million people working in conditions similar to Masih’s in places like brick factories, farms, in factories or as servants. They are given protection from hunger and homelessness in exchange for their freedom.

A €275 Ticket to Servitude

On the December day one year ago when Masih was freed, he sat on a plank bed at the home of his parents in the village of Fatepur outside of Lahore. The ride on the rickshaw took a half an hour. During this interview and subsequent conversations over the course of the next year, he shared his life story. The story starts with his parents’ home, the reason he would be forced into slavery. Sixteen years ago, when he was 12 years old, his parents borrowed 35,000 rupees, worth about €275 today, from factory owner Khan. They wanted to take that money together with their meagre savings to buy a piece of property and build a two-room house.

Khan lent them the money, but he also demanded that the Masihs live and work in the brick factory until they had paid off their debt. “My parents agreed to it. What else could they do?” asks Masih. “They thought they would have it paid back in one or two years.”

The family moved into the workers’ accommodation at the factory, a clay hut that housed around 50 people. The entire family was allotted a room about the size of a horse stall. All they had to sleep on was a bed frame pushed up against the wall that was far too cramped for two adults, Masih and his four brothers. They were only allowed to leave the property with the permission of the factory boss. They were given one day a week off in addition to two months during the summer monsoon season when operations at the factory ceased anyway due to strong rainfall. During their time off, they weren’t paid.

The Masihs worked hard. They would wake up at 3 a.m. each morning to avoid the unbearable afternoon heat. Women and children — some as young as three years old — would knead clay, soil, salt and water to create the gray mixture that would be pushed into wood molds to form bricks. After they dried for 24 hours, the men would cart them to the oven, where they would be stacked up in the furnaces. One day later, the bricks, baked red, would be taken with wheel barrows to the delivery area.

“If one or two children work as well, a person can earn an average of 3,000 rupees per week,” or about €24, “depending on how many bricks we make,” Masih says. “Of that, 1,000 rupees are deducted each week for the loan, leaving about 8,000 rupees a month. That’s enough to provide the family with flat bread and lentils.” There were seldom any vegetables and the family only had meat about two times a year on holidays. “If someone got sick or needed medicine or a doctor, we would go back into debt,” he explains of life in servitude. “And if someone was unable to work, there was no pay.”

Exploiting the Weak

Despite the payments, the debt the Masihs owed never shrunk. Instead, it continued to grow through excessive interest, falsified bookkeeping and small loans for unanticipated expenditures. The years passed by and Masih had become a grown-up. Because he promised to work until all the debts had been paid off, his parents, by then elderly, were freed. People at the brick factory experienced firsthand the entire cycle of life: children were born and some of the workers even died.

Year in and year out, Masih stood barefoot in the cold sludge and in the heat of the brick factory’s kiln. He never attended school and his world was confined to the factory and the village where his parents had built their home. He never once ventured to the capital city Islamabad, sprawling Karachi or even nearby Lahore.

At the age of 22, Masih met a girl named Rebekka during a period when the brickyard was closed because of the monsoons. When the two married, they borrowed 20,000 rupees, or about €230, from Khan in order to cover the party and food that relatives and local villagers expected from such an event. Their first child, a girl, arrived soon. It was a difficult birth and Rebekka had to have a Caesarean section. Few have health insurance in Pakistan and the couple had to pay the hospital 30,000 rupees for the procedure. Once again, Masih was forced to ask Khan for money. Their second child, a son, also had to be delivered by C-section, creating further debts for the family. “I thought, I’m never going to get out of here anyway, so I might as well go into debt,” Masih says today.

When asked why he didn’t just run away, Masih smiles. “I have to pay back my debts!” He comes across as the kind of person who has nothing but his honor — an honor he wants to preserve by keeping his word. But his words also betray the sense of resignation and the fears of a person who is used to being at the very bottom of the hierarchy. “Running away wouldn’t have helped me,” Masih says. “They have their troops — they would have looked for us, hauled us back, locked us up and beat us.” Many brick plant owners also buy and sell slaves, making it easy to get rid of workers they don’t like. “Sometimes even to distant regions,” he says. “If that had happened, I would never have come home again.”

In many brick factories in Pakistan, horrific stories are told of rebellious or sick workers being thrown into the kilns alive. Similar stories can also be heard at factories owned by Khan. “They don’t leave behind any traces,” one source says, adding that rape is “totally normal”.

Above the Law

Despite its widespread practice, slavery is illegal in Pakistan. Both slavery and forced labor are explicitly prohibited in the constitution. Indentured servitude — e.g. loaning someone money and then forcing them to work in a specific place until they pay off that debt — is also illegal.

But charges are seldom pressed and convictions are even rarer, even in cases of sexual abuse or the murder of workers. The reason is that most people who keep slaves are in positions of power — people like Kahn who are often above the law in Pakistan. The country is still a feudal society, with wealth in many cases the product of exploitation. The police often collect hush money and look away.

Factory owner Khan defends his operation. “Our employees have a good life with us,” he says. “They aren’t lacking anything. They get food, a roof over their heads.” Khan utters only a few lines on the phone and says he doesn’t want to meet with a journalist. When asked if he has slaves, he denies it. “No, they have incurred debts and are working them off,” he says. “Everyone here can pay them off within a few months. They just can’t be too lazy.” He simply hung up on follow-up calls. In his mind, he had said everything there was to say. Masih says that in all the years he worked for him, he never once met Khan in person.

Khan’s words are, of course, nothing but an extremely euphemistic description of a brutal reality, meant to make it seem as though his workers are merely paying back their debt. But in such cases, the handing out of loans is just a pretext for enslaving people.

Indeed, instances such as Masih’s show that it is often impossible to pay back the debts, meaning the only path to liberty for slaves is if somebody buys them free. Like Shahzad Kamran, who paid for Masih’s freedom. Sitting in his office in Lahore, Kamran says he has thus far managed to help 20 families using money donated to his organization.

“I am careful to only help those who have good prospects” for survival on their own, he says. He also says he focuses on buying out families rather than individuals. “Furthermore, they have to be willing to send their children to school and they have to have somewhere to live so that they don’t end up on the streets.”

Kamran first learned of Masih’s plight through the reading and writing lessons his organization finances for the children of slaves. Masih’s children took part in such a course and Kamran got to know the family. He was moved by their plight: a second-generation slave with intelligent children who faced lives of slavery themselves.

‘I Can’t Buy Freedom for Everyone’

“The choice is never easy. All of them are, of course, hoping that they will be helped,” Kamran says. “But I can’t buy freedom for everyone.”

He says he is driven by compassion and the desire to help. As a Christian, he is also eager to please God. But he also clearly enjoys the respect he has earned from others: His office walls are covered with clippings about his work from Pakistani newspapers. “Press relations are important,” he says. “That’s the only way I can find new donors to help people.”

Kamran himself does not come from a wealthy background and most of his organization’s money comes from wealthy property owners and industrial magnates in Pakistan. Very little funding comes from Christians in the country, but he has managed to establish contact with Christian organizations in the US and Europe who have provided him with donations.

Still, it is an uphill battle. A lasting solution to the problem of slavery in Pakistan requires changes to social structures in the country and the elimination of feudalism. A healthcare system and social welfare must be introduced and funding for education must be increased. But in a country like Pakistan, which suffers from corruption, a weak economy and years of terrorism, none of that is particularly realistic.

That hasn’t stopped politicians from pledging to do something about the problem. In Punjab Province, which is home to some 5,000 brick factories, the premier has promised stiffer laws against child labor and vowed to increase the enforcement of minimum wage laws in the factories. In the past, there have also been several plans presented for using tax money to buy slaves’ freedom. Traditionally, though, nothing has come of such plans and announcements. Politicians in Pakistan have been making them for decades, and little has changed.

Three months after being freed, Masih is making ends meet by selling tea and yoghurt in his home village of Fatepur. He also helps neighboring farmers with the potato harvest. He is allowed to keep misshapen potatoes and his wife turns them into chips over a cow-dung fire. “We don’t have much money,” he says.

Plastering the Walls

He is sitting in the nine-square-meter (95-square-foot) room he lives in with his family, an add-on to his parents’ home. They don’t have much more room than they did in the brick factory. “But having the freedom to do what I want is invaluable,” he says. Despite saying he would never return, he has made one trip back to the brick factory because he missed his friends.

It is vital that he now avoids taking out any more loans and enslaving himself once again. He signed a contract with Shahzad Kamran pledging that he would avoid doing so. Otherwise, Kamran would demand his money back.


“We don’t need much to be happy,” says Masih. His daughter, who is almost five, attends school in the village while his three-year-old son plays at home with toys made of sticks and aluminum cans. “But nobody can get sick,” he says. “As long as that’s the case, we won’t have to take any loans.”A picture from his wedding hangs on one wall of the room, with a poster of Kate Winslet on the other. He recently saw the film “Titanic” for the first time. Masih spends a fair amount of time sleeping these days, enjoying the fact that nobody awakens him, yells at him or forces him to work. That was always part of his vision of freedom: being able to sleep as long as he wanted.

When he lies awake, staring at the walls, he thinks about plastering the walls so that he doesn’t have to look at the bricks anymore. At least not from the inside of his room.

Categories: Asia, Pakistan

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