Thursday, April 05, 2007

Fighting Modern Slavery

Interview with Muhktar Rana

On Friday 23rd March MUKHTAR RANA, a veteran Pakistani campaigner for labour and trade union rights, former member of the Pakistani parliament and former prisoner of conscience, spoke to the New Worker on the campaign against bonded labour in Pakistan and his role in launching it. He began by explaining how people come to be bonded labourers:

FAMILIES become victim to disease or famine or some other disaster and have to borrow money in order to survive. They get an agreement with big landowners or factory owners and end spending the rest of their lives working to pay off the debt.
The big landlords and factory owners use dirty tricks and fraudulent accounting to keep them always in debt; they charge too much for helping these people to survive and pay wages too low for them ever to repay the debts.
Those who work on the land are given nothing from the crops they produce and the wages they are paid are very, very low. The children of these bonded labour families are also forced to work and the women are misused for sex.
This kind of slavery is spread all over the world and, according to various international human rights bodies; there are around two million bonded peasants and labourers in Pakistan working in farms, factories and kilns. They are kept in big camps under armed guard to stop them escaping.
My first contact with bonded labourers was when I was running an educational institution called the People’s Academy in Faislabad (formerly known as Lailpur but renamed after King Faisal of Saudi Arabia after his death).
Bonded labourers working in a nearby brick kiln walked miles to my academy to see me and explain their situation.
I had also become a member of the national Parliament of Pakistan. I won the votes of the working class of Faislabad and I also chaired the People’s Party of the district of Faislabad. Under my supervision we won 90 per cent of the national and provincial MP seats because I was very popular among the workers. Even one of the very big capitalists, Saigal, was defeated in spite of tremendous support from a lot of mullahs.
After coming to know the situation of the bonded labourers working in that brick kiln I decided, along with my family, to involve the trade unions in working for the freedom of bonded labourers and the movement started to gather momentum.
But I was thrown into jail for five years for opposing the martial law imposed by the President, Mr Bhutto, because our manifesto demanded democracy. We had been demanding this in the past, throughout various periods of military rule.
Some other trade union leaders also suffered and were even thrown out of Pakistan and never allowed to come back. They took refuge mainly in Britain and Sweden.
During my imprisonment Amnesty International adopted me as a prisoner of conscience. After I had completed my term of imprisonment Mr Bhutto met me. There is a long story of how he apologised for his actions.
But during that period Bhutto again imposed another period of martial law in Karachi when the people demonstrated against the elections he had conducted – claiming they were fraudulent. I went with my family to Karachi to campaign against martial law, with a manifesto against military rule and for the restoration of democracy.
Mr Bhutto then, instead of putting me in prison, threw me out of Pakistan. It was because Swedish Amnesty International had adopted me as a prisoner of conscience. Then I had a choice of going to Sweden or Britain. I was born in the Punjab desert and I was a bit nervous about Sweden’s cold climate, and in any case I could speak English but not Swedish so I opted to come to Britain. And in London there were various committees – backed by some MPs – campaigning for me to be allowed residence in Britain. The British Library was another attraction that drew me to choose to come to London.
I walked out of London airport without much fuss; I had come on the grounds that I needed medical treatment and I had a certificate from Pakistani doctors confirming that I needed to come for treatment. I started living in London in 1977 and while I was living in sheltered accommodation as a patient I founded the Peace and Human Rights Trust. My wife Norma and her son became fellow trustees.
Our objectives were to campaign for peace and human rights. As I was well known in Pakistan, especially amongst the working class and peasants, I discussed with my fellow trustees and decided to start campaigning in Pakistan for two important goals:

1) To work for the freedom of bonded labourers and peasants;
2) To work for the establishment of a welfare state and other human rights in Pakistan.

Since 1977 I had been going back to Pakistan to campaign against corruption but in 2003 I went to Pakistan and we held our first seminar on the issue of bonded labour, including in the bangle-manufacturing industry, for a welfare state and for the abolition of Bhatta (the form of bonded labour imposed on brick kiln workers). Various political leaders, human rights activists, representatives of labourers and peasants and journalists took part in the seminar. To the good luck of the trust it was very well reported and an office of the PHRT was formed in Pakistan.
To our pleasant surprise similar seminars were held in almost every province and the issues of bonded labour and a welfare state were brought into focus. But the most active and physical response was reserved for Hyderabad, the capital of Sindh province. The journalists, lawyers and human rights activists in Hyderabad responded enthusiastically and we formed a trust unit for Sindh.
After the creation of that unit and various conferences the issue of bonded peasants and labourers started whipping up. To our surprise the office of the chief minister of Sindh made a very wrong claim that there were no bonded labourers in Sindh. But to our greater and pleasant surprise the provincial minister for the interior came to our support. He said the Sindh government claim was wrong and that there were two million bonded labourers and peasants in Sindh. And he supported the campaign of the trust for their liberation.
As a matter of fact the cruelty of the big feudal landlords of the Sindh was so well known for such a long time that various peasant groups have been formed for the rights of peasants and tenants. One of the best known was the Hari (peasant) Committee.
Some of the bureaucrats favourable to the cause of the Haries had written very good reports about the problem.
Bhutto was from Sindh and for a while he was President, chief minister responsible for administration, Prime Minister and chair of the People’s Party. Part of the manifesto of the People’s Party was for the freedom of bonded labourers and peasants but the problem continued under his rule and still continues today. After him his daughter also became president of Pakistan twice.
They also made a law for the abolition of bonded labour and the constitution of Pakistan bans any kind of forced labour.
There have been various High Court decisions and precedents in place banning bonded labour and freeing the peasants and labourers. And there are various human rights organisations all over Pakistan working for the freedom of bonded labourers and peasants.
But in spite of all this today according to the human rights groups and the International Labour Organisation there are still an estimated two million bonded labourers and slaves in Pakistan. Because the big landlords rule the politics, hand-in-hand with the military. They have control over the government and politics.
But good things have been happening. For example a young minister of labour in the central province – a friend of mine and the son of another friend of mine – got deeply involved in the movement for the freedom of bonded labourers and peasants.
He succeeded in getting thousands freed and rehabilitated in spite of serious opposition from a corrupt administration and cruel landlords.
According to Sajjad Ali Shah, a former chief justice of the Supreme Court of Pakistan, a young labour minister was targeted and killed. Police claimed he had committed suicide. The workers and peasants of Sindh loved the young central minister and do not believe he committed suicide. They are indebted to the help he gave.
Soon our trust workers and leaders succeeded getting bonded labourers and peasants released with the help of lawyers, courts and the media.
To our happiness both the judges and the media have played a very big role in this and in getting the issue whipped up nationally.
There is a significant case of a bonded labour family that raised the issue throughout the nation.
Munoo Bheel is the head of the family; about nine years ago because of international pressure the landlord, Abdur Rehman Murri, was forced to release them. But shortly after that the landlords sent his armed guards and got the family re-abducted. They did not get Munoo Bheel himself because he was not at home when they came. But 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 but they have taken no action yet to release the family or bring the kidnappers to justice.
Human rights org-anisations from Sweden and Pakistan were campaigning for the freedom of the Munoo Bheel family but the big landowner is so powerful that for years Munoo Bheel could not get his family released. We joined the campaign for his release and to our very pleasant surprise we found an ally in the Pakistan Chief of Justice, Mr Iftikhar Mohammed Choudry – the one who has been arrested and detained recently by the dictator General Perves Musharraf because of his actions to defend human rights.
In the Supreme Court, Choudry brought a “suo moto” (self-motivated by the court) case and ordered that the Munoo Bheel family should be released. But the police have been playing tricks and the family has not yet been released so far.
But the cause of this family is getting support from the trust and from the very highest court in Pakistan. The campaigning goes on.
In order to satisfy the Supreme Court, they sent the inspector general of police for Sindh, saying that anyone who gave information that led to the whereabouts and release of the Munoo Bheer family would get millions of rupees reward. But so far there has been no response because the chief minister of Sindh and his colleagues are refusing to cooperate with the Supreme Court.
Not only that; although the big landlord Murri had been imprisoned for abducting the family and not releasing them, his friends have been threatening our trust coordinator in Pakistan. They said that if the trust did not stop pleading to keep Murri in prison the coordinator would be killed. So far he has survived and our representations in court have succeeded in stopping attempts by Murri to get bail. We are determined that the Munoo Bheer family will be found.
And we will keep on with the campaign for the freedom of bonded labourers until every labourer who is a bonded slave is freed unconditionally.
To focus attention on the campaign in Britain we are having a gathering on Sunday 8th April on my birthday at the Bakehouse in Blackheath, which will celebrate the release of 3,000 bonded labourers.
We need to raise fund because once these bonded labourers and peasants are freed they have no home and no job. We need to build accommodation for them and to provide them with food and clean water. In the Sindh there is a problem with salt water; clean water has to be transported over long distances. We have taken out bank loans to set up camps to provide accommodation and we are getting support from NGOs (non-government organisations).
We prefer to raise funds from the working class and there has been a response. One small landlord who is sympathetic has given 50 acres to the trust to provide accommodation for freed bonded labourers. And recently some other small landlords have offered a car for communications. More and more political and human rights workers and social workers are offering cooperation.
But the process has been stopped because of the presidential attack on Choudry and now the progressive campaigners in Pakistan are having to fight to get justice for the Chief Justice.
Anti-Slavery International are supporting us and their director has promised to come to Pakistan and to provide more funds for legal and political work.