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Child Labour vs National Interests: the story of Iqbal Masih - Fizzah Mansoor

When discussing child labor in Pakistan, it is impossible to not pay attention to the case of Iqbal Masih.

Iqbal was born into a poor Catholic family in Muritke, near Lahore. In 1986 at the age of four, he was sold into bondage after his family was unable to pay back a loan valued at Rs 600, or 12 USD at the time. Iqbal worked for Pakistan’s lucrative carpet trading business, which mostly employs very young children as weavers for the clean, intricate designs their small fingers were capable of knotting, and because it was easy to get away with underpaying them. The workplaces were little more than sweatshops; thousands of children across the country were forcibly kept away from their families, spending all daylight hours operating heavy wooden hand weaving machines to pay off loans their parents had incurred, or to earn a meager salary for their destitute homes.

Bonded labour was declared illegal by the Supreme Court of Pakistan in 1992. It is important to note why exactly this step was taken by the Supreme Court; in 1992, Pakistani carpet exports fell for the first time, indicating that sales had dropped in the Western world for the first time (which previously patronized luxury goods from Third World countries for their superior craftsmanship and competitive prices). This sent a clear message to economic policymakers- until consumers were convinced that their goods were sourced ethically and did not involve child labor, sales would continue to drop. Since carpets were an important source of foreign currency, the decline sent shock waves throughout the Pakistani economy

On receiving the news that Bonded Labor had been outlawed, Iqbal saw the first rays of hope and saw a life for himself beyond the confines of the grim carpet factory. After a first failed escape attempt followed by rescue from social workers, he attended the Bonded Labor Liberation Front (BLLF) School for former child slaves and quickly completed a four-year education in only two years. Iqbal helped over 3,000 Pakistani children that were in bonded labor to escape to freedom and made speeches about child labor throughout the world.

He was shot dead at the age of 12 in April 1995, on Easter Sunday. The chairman of BLLF Pakistan Ehsan Ullah Khan, a journalist and human rights activist, held the carpet export mafia responsible for his assassination- there was no evidence presented for this claim, but Khan was adamant, reportedly saying: “How else do you explain how, in a village where no murder has occurred for a decade, the one child who poses a threat to the carpet owners is gunned down? Coincidence is never so cruel.” Eight hundred mourners attended Iqbal's funeral; a week later 3,000 protesters, half of them under twelve, marched through the streets of Lahore demanding an end to child labor.

A few days after the funeral Khan left Pakistan to consult with children's rights activists in Europe. He called upon the Human Rights Commission of the United Nations to ban the import and sale of all products made by children, especially carpets."I appeal to importers and consumers: say no and only no to child-made carpets.” Western consumers complied; Bowing to public pressure, importers in the United States, Sweden, Italy, Britain, France, and Germany began to cancel carpet orders. At the same time, human-rights groups and individual sympathizers have donated large sums to support and expand BLLF operations.

This boycott of unethically made Pakistani carpets was intended to be used as an economic weapon to achieve social reforms, by expecting canceled orders to result in negotiation and, with luck, accommodation between industrialists and activists. Pakistan's industrialists, however, have chosen the questionable tactic of denying the existence of bonded labor in their factories; the BLLF and its allies were condemned as Jewish and Indian enemies who had launched a systematic campaign to damage the reputation of Pakistan's carpet industry for their own profit.

This narrative was further pushed by the Pakistan Carpet Manufacturers and Exporters Association and echoed in the National Assembly. At the same time, Pakistan's leading newspapers began running "exposés" of abolitionist leaders, the nicest of which characterized Ehsan Ullah Khan to have "indisputable ties to Jewish and Indian agencies hostile to Pakistan." The publishers of these newspapers are suspected of having large financial interests in industries employing child labor. Following a Federal Investigation Agency’s (FIA’s) violent raid on BLLF’s headquarters in Lahore, the press doubled down on their campaign against BLLF and social workers; a number of newspapers whose editorial pages conceded that they were "troubled by the carpet export crisis" reported the following "facts": Khan himself had murdered Iqbal Masih to win sympathy for the BLLF; Khan had misappropriated BLLF funds to support his own lifestyle; Khan routinely used BLLF schoolchildren as sex partners and house slaves; Iqbal Masih was a twenty-one-year-old midget whom Khan paid to masquerade as a carpet child; the BLLF was an outpost of India's intelligence agency; Khan was an Indian agent working to disgrace the Pakistani carpet trade. These same papers also "revealed" that carpet workers enjoy a higher standard of living than the average citizen, along with better working conditions, and the “few” children working for the industry did so after school, under the loving supervision of their parents. Child labor remains rampant in Pakistan, and seemingly receives even less media coverage and national outrage than it did 28 years ago, when the practice was formally outlawed.

There is a sinister pattern that can be observed here; the violence inflicted upon Iqbal Masih, from his forced labor to pay off a high interest debt accrued by his parents, down to his murder and subsequent character assassination does not reflect the vices of a few notable individuals, but of Pakistani society as a whole. When it comes to the pressing issue of forced child labor, every facet of society seems to be complicit in it- from the carpet factory owners who loan at obscene interest rates and refuse to pay fair wages, to manufacturers and exporters who turn a blind eye to the suffering of workers in their industry, to politicians in the National Assembly who refuse to hold businessmen accountable as long as they keep reaping benefits of a booming economy, to the journalists and newspapers who ran smear campaigns to protect their self-interests; everyone is equally to blame for the death of Iqbal Masih, and the continued exploitation of children and bonded laborers to this day.

Finally, those citizens who are well aware of this problem and yet continue to hire child laborers or domestic workers because they can be treated poorly without impunity, or because they can be paid much lower wages without consequences are also to be held accountable. To fight the evils associated with child labor, we also have to fight the evils prevalent in our society and culture that deem it permissible to oppress the most destitute, and turn a blind eye to immoral practices to protect national interests or personal profit.

Fizzah Mansoor is a student at the University of Toronto, where she is pursuing a double major in Cognitive Science and Philosophy.

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