Bonded Agricultural Labourers in Lower Sindh Province – Pakistan

For the past three years, information has been submitted to this Working Group on the plight of bonded labourers in Pakistan. During this time there has been no substantive improvement in the position of bonded labourers and in Sindh Province the situation has seriously deteriorated as a result of the recent High Court ruling.

According to research carried out for the Government of Sindh and the Asian Development Bank 1 there are some 1.7 million landless agricultural workers (haris) and sharecroppers in five districts of Sindh Province (Thatta, Dadu, Badin, Mirpurkhas and Umerkot). The report notes that most of these people are in debt bondage.

While bonded Labour exists throughout Sindh Province, the majority of those bonded in the north belong to the Muslim majority, while most of the bonded agricultural labourers in southern Sindh Province belong to dalit 2 (untouchable) and to tribal communities who have migrated from the drought-prone area of Tharparkar desert. Poverty and starvation have forced these communities to accept the landlords’ cash advances, and to be available for work from dawn to dusk. Bonded labourers may be detained or guarded to stop them escaping and in these situations of total ownership rape of women is not uncommon.

Many bonded labourers work for no wages, and food and clothing provided are added to their debt along with interest payments on the loan, thus increasing the debt on a daily basis. Most are forced to provide begar, a form of forced, unpaid Labour, on top of the tasks assigned against the debt. Trafficking in bonded labourers who are unable to pay their debts is a common practice among landlords. Bonded labourers are sold by one landlord to another, usually for a price higher than the debt they had with their previous landlord thereby increasing the bonded labourer’s debt.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) Special Task Force on Sindh has worked successfully for the release of some 15,000 men, women and children who were being held as bonded labourers, some of whom have been bonded to the same landlords for three generations. Temporary shelter has been provided to them in seven camps around Hyderabad City.

Living conditions in the camps are totally inadequate, but neither the government nor any other agency has offered to provide any support. These families remain vulnerable to reprisals, including threats and kidnapping, from their former landlords. The kidnapping and disappearance of the family of Munoo Bheel on 4 May 1988 is a case in point. Their former landlord, Abdur Rehman Murri and six other men were identified by witnesses as being responsible for abducting the family and the case was registered with the local police (official reference FIR No.35, 1988). Despite this the authorities have not taken action to locate and free the Munoo family or to bring the perpetrators to justice.

In theory, all bonded labourers should have been freed under the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1992 and those responsible for keeping them in bondage should have been prosecuted. However, in practice the political and financial strength of the landlords in Sindh Province allows them to continue using bonded labourers with impunity. Some landlords have even successfully filed charges against bonded labourers with the police, leading to the imprisonment of some 40 haris.

The High Court of Sindh (Circuit Bench at Hyderabad) Judgement, 9 January 2002

The situation of bonded labourers in Sindh deteriorated still further on 9 January 2002 when the High Court of Sindh dismissed 94 petitions for the release of bonded labourers declaring that they were disputes between landlords and haris over debts and should be settled under the Sindh Tenancy Act 1950.

The HRCP has outlined a number of inconsistencies in this judgement in a petition for leave to appeal to the Supreme Court (No. K 343 of 2002) which are highlighted below.
On 19 October 2001, the High Court decided to consider all of the petitions together, this included the 94 cases filed by HRCP and cases filed by landlords against bonded labourers. It did not consider the facts and circumstances relating to each case before it and the Court reserved judgement without giving the HRCP or its Counsel the opportunity to address the Court.

On 10 January 2002, the High Court declared its judgement. It dismissed all of the 94 cases filed for the release of bonded labourers along with cases filed by the landlords. The court remarked that “living beyond ones means and being in a state of continuous debt has become the main reason for such disputes and the resultant emergence of petitions.” It declared that the cases were disputes between landlords and haris over debts and should be settled under the Sindh Tenancy Act 1950. However, the Court made no reference to the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act 1992 which should take precedence in this matter and would require the loans to be nullified and the bonded labourers to be freed.

The Court also referred to other Court judgements to support its findings, but in all the cases it referred to the bonded labourers and haris were ordered to be released. Indeed one of the judgements that the High Court of Sindh refers to support its findings (a case decided by the Lahore High Court – Lahore 428) the judgement specifically refers to the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act 1992, indicating the 1992 Act’s importance in reaching the decision to release the bonded labourers.

The Court also stated that “all applications centered around Mirpurkhas, Sanghar and Umerkot. In no other areas of Sindh such applications were made.” This is not the case as large numbers of bonded laborers from other districts of Sindh (e.g. Thatta, Hyderabad, Badin, Tharparkar and Nawabshah) have filed cases with the Sindh High Court and many of them were released by the Hyderabad Court itself.

The ruling also states that cases of this nature should be settled by mukhtiarkars. These officials are responsible for keeping the records of tenants and tenancies. However, they are not authorised to settle cases under the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act 1992 and they do not appear willing to confront local landlords, as witnessed by the fact that proper records have not been maintained. The HRCP is not aware that any of the haris in the petition were registered under Section 9 of the Sindh Tenancy Act 1950 as is required.

Since this judgement was announced, new petitions for the release of bonded labourers filed in the Sindh High Court have been rejected. The ruling effectively negates the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act 1992. If this Court’s view is upheld by the Supreme Court of Pakistan it would completely undermine the Government of Pakistan’s proposals to abolish bonded labour as outlined in the National Policy and Plan of Action for the Abolition of Bonded Labour and Rehabilitation of Freed Bonded Labourers.

Recommendations

The Government of Pakistan should make clear that the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act 1992 should take precedence over the Sindh Tenancy Act 1950 whenever there appears to be a conflict in the interpretation of the law. It should also consider whether the relevant sections of the Sindh Tenancy Act 1950 need to be repealed.
We call on the Government to acknowledge the scale of the problem of bonded labour as outlined in the research for the Government of Sindh and the Asian Development Bank. We also urge the Government to give priority to fully implementing its National Plan of Action and in this context to pay particular attention to initiating prosecutions and establishing independent mechanisms for the registration and liberation of bonded labourers.