Pakistani activists want kilns to pay working women, not their husbands

By Shehryar Warraich  |  Jan. 29, 2015 at 7:30 AM
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LAHORE, Pakistan, Jan. 26 (News Lens Pakistan) -- Labor rights activists in Pakistan are urging the country's brick kiln industry to change the pay system so that women laborers are paid directly, instead of their wages going to the male heads of their families.

The activists say thousands of women producing bricks in Pakistan are not being paid directly, and the industry has no record of these workers, their work or earnings.

According to the Brick Kiln Owners Association of Pakistan, there are 15,000 to 18,000 brick kilns in Pakistan. Half of the 60 workers associated with each kiln are women.

Asma Jahangir, a veteran human rights activist and former head of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, said some of these women are raising concerns in such forums as her former commission, the Bonded Labor Liberation Front Pakistan -- an organization working against the practice of bonded labor -- and the Lahore-based Democratic Commission for Human Development. "There are several reasons for this ongoing discrimination. The system of debt-bonded labor, family norms, patriarchal attitudes and illiteracy are the main causes of the exploitation of women workers," Jahangir told News Lens Pakistan.

Women shape mud into blocks that will become bricks, a skill most acquired from their mothers. However, women are not being paid directly by the kiln owners. The wages they earn are paid to the male heads of their families.

Hajra Batool, who works at a Lahore brick kiln, said she and her sisters make bricks starting before sunrise but none of them is listed as employees in the kiln's records.

"Only a man can get himself registered on the pay register, and we have to rely on our men for our own money," she said.

"It is useless and uncomfortable moment if you don't get paid off for what you do," said Salma Bibi, 35, who works at the Shalamar Bagh brick kiln in Lahore. "Women are as important as men are at brick kilns, but the tyranny for us is that the wages for our hard work aren't given to us."

Brick kiln owners concede that registers only list men's names.

"In fact, we hire the whole family for this job, and only one person of a family can be registered to acquire weekly wage, whatever the labor that family does," said Shoaib Niazi, president of the Brick Kiln Owners Association.

"It has been practiced since the days of subsistence agriculture, centuries back. Families also don't want their women to get themselves registered," Niazi said.

Rural Pakistani society is deeply patriarchal, and it is rare for women to have a say in family financial matters.

"If the women have any complaint, they must notify the owner of the kiln where they work. But to my knowledge, there is no such demand or objection," Niazi said.

One woman said she did complain.

"I have asked the owner of my brick kiln several times not to give our remuneration to my husband," she told News Lens Pakistan. "My husband is a drug addict, and he spends all of my and his two daughters' income to fulfill his drug cravings."

Some women have been beaten by their husbands for demanding their wages, Tanveer Jahan, director of the Democratic Commission for Human Developmen,t said.

"The atmosphere is very tough, but we can't stop working. There are many women who get beaten up by their husbands whenever they demand money, but are unable to leave them," said Shamma Bibi, a brickmaker from another kiln in Lahore.

"We can't leave our husbands and family because this is considered unethical and shameful for our parents, so there is no choice except working with this reality," she said.

Mehar Abdul Haq, secretary general of the Brick Kilns Association of Pakistan, said, "Workers who borrow money from us ask us to cut a sum from their wage. So we pay the wages to the man who has borrowed from us.

"It is not our obligation to check whether men give anything to their families or not," he said.

Critics like Jahangir and Jahan are urging the kiln owners to start paying wages directly to the women who work there. Meanwhile, they are urging male heads of family to distribute the wages to the women in their households.

"Illiteracy is also a big source of all these problems. People don't know even about their rights and also don't have contact with the concerned authorities," said Khalid Mehmood, director at the Labor Education Foundation.

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