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
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
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.