Despite human rights campaigns and official promises of reform, Pakistan continues to rely on the labour of children. Some 12 million, many no better than slaves, work in its factories; half are dead by the age of 12. In the early 1990s, activists called for a Western boycott of child- made carpets from the Third World. But, asks Jonathan Silvers, have their efforts done any good?
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No two negotiations for the sale of a child are alike. All are founded on the pretence that the parties involved have the best interests of the child at heart. On a sweltering morning in the Punjab village of Wasan Pura, a carpet-master, Sadique, is telling a 30-year-old brick worker named Mirza of the advantages his son will enjoy as an apprentice weaver.

"Your boy is bright and ambitious," Sadique says. "He will learn far more practical skills in six months at the loom than he would in six years of school. He will be taught by experienced craftsmen, and his pay will rise as his skills improve. Have no doubt, your son will be thankful for the opportunity you have given him, and the Lord will bless you for looking so well after your own." Mirza seems doubtful, perhaps because Nadeem is seven years old, perhaps because he has seen too many of his neighbours' children suffer through similar opportunities. But his misgivings are overshadowed by his poverty. He supports a family of five by hand-moulding bricks for up to 80 hours a week. The work pays poorly, and on occasion not at all. Three weeks earlier a monsoon destroyed several thousand unfired bricks; the kiln owner refused to pay the workers for the two weeks they had spent making them. Months behind on their rent and in debt to village merchants, Mirza and his wife concluded that the only way to avoid eviction was to bond their eldest child to a manufacturer. Sadique was rumoured to have an urgent need for child labourers, which they believed would translate into a high price.

In fact, Sadique is unwilling to pay even the market rate. He offers Mirza 5,000 rupees (pounds 96) for five years of his son's labour. It's a paltry sum - two months' earnings for an adult weaver. Mirza was expecting three times as much. "Business is off," Sadique says. "When things improve, I may be able to give you another two or three hundred."

Mirza is distressed. Like most labourers, he is acutely aware of his caste, and in the presence of those he deems his betters is deferential to the point of abjectness. Bravely, he asks for another 1,000 rupees: "Sir, my family's survival depends on your charity. You will always be remembered in our prayers as our saviour from beggary and destitution." To his relief, Sadique agrees at once, extending a manicured hand with a speed that suggests he was prepared to pay more and got a bargain. In any event, he can afford to be generous. The money, called a peshgi, will be paid in instalments, and he will deduct all costs associated with Nadeem's maintenance and training. Many deductions are contrived and inflated. Parents are charged for children's food, tools and raw materials, their errors, the time the master spends "educating" them. Parents think themselves fortunate if at the end of a child's service the master has paid one-third of the peshgi. Mirza is unaware of these deductions and asks no questions. He consummates the deal by shaking Sadique's hand (after wiping his own on his tunic) and accepting a first instalment of 200 rupees. The parties are bound only by their word. "Your boy now belongs to me," Sadique says. "Please understand that so long as he works under my roof he is answerable only to me. Inform him that the needs of my shop take priority over those of his family, and he must do all he can to please me."

CHILD labour has assumed epidemic proportions in Pakistan. Statistics are unreliable, but the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), a non-governmental organisation which monitors such matters, last year estimated the number of Pakistani working children to be "realistically in the region of 11-12 million". At least half are under the age of 10. Despite recent laws prohibiting child labour and indentured servitude, children make up a quarter of the unskilled workforce, earning on average a third of the adult wage. Certain industries, notably carpet-making and brick-making, cannot survive without them. The child labour pool is all but inexhaustible, owing in part to a very high birth rate and to an education system that can accommodate only about a third of the country's school-age children. Each year millions enter the labour force, where they compete for work with adults - often even with their parents. In many regions cheap child labour has depressed the already inadequate adult wage to the point where a parent and child together now earn less than the parent alone earned a year ago. As long as children are put to work, poverty will spread.

Child labour is an institution throughout the Third World: the worldwide population of children under 14 who work full-time is thought to exceed 200 million. But few countries have done less to abolish or to contain the practice than Pakistan. Given its relative prosperity, its constitutional prohibition against child labour, and its leaders' signatures on every UN human and child rights convention, Pakistan's de facto dependency on child labour is troubling and, to its critics, inexcusable. "Inaction speaks louder than words," says IA Rehman, director of the HRCP. "This government is in continuous violation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and has consistently refused to enforce those very laws it enacted to protect its most vulnerable citizens. The problem is lack of political will. The problem is greed."

Pakistan's National Assembly has enacted laws to curb child labour: the Employment of Children Act of 1991 prohibited it in hazardous occupations and environments; the Bonded Labour Act of 1992 abolished indentured servitude and the peshgi system. But the government failed to provide for the laws' enforcement. Nor did it inform working children and indentured servants that they were free and released from debts. "We prefer to leave enforcement to the discretion of the police," says a Ministry of Labour official. "They understand best the needs of their community. Law is not an absolute."

TO LEAVE Lahore, the nation's intellectual and commercial centre, is to enter a land populated and run by children. Soon after I arrived in Pakistan, I arranged a trip to a town whose major factories were rumoured to enslave very young children. The roads just beyond the city limits were congested with donkey carts, all driven by teamsters of eight or nine; boys seem to have a monopoly on roadside attractions: petrol stations, garages, restaurants. I found myself hoping during the journey there that the children I saw working in fields, on the roads, at the marketplaces, would prepare me for the worst. They did not. No amount of preparation could have lessened the shock and revulsion I felt on entering a large sporting-goods factory in the town of Sialkot, 70 miles from Lahore, where scores of children, most of them aged five to 10, produce soccer balls by hand for 40 rupees, or about 80p, a day. The children work 80 hours a week in near-total darkness and total silence. According to the foreman, the darkness is both an economy and a precaution: child-rights activists have difficulty taking photographs if the lighting is poor. The silence is to ensure product quality: "If the children speak, they are not giving their complete attention to the product and are liable to make errors." The children are permitted one 30-minute meal break a day; they are punished if they take longer. They are also punished if they fall asleep, if their workbenches are sloppy, if they waste material or miscut a pattern, if they complain to their parents or speak to strangers. A partial list of "infractions" tacked to a wall is of dubious utility: the children are illiterate.

When confronted with questions from a foreigner about their use of child labour, industrialists respond in one of two ways: they attack the questioner or they deliver a lengthy lecture about the role of children in Pakistan's development. The attacks are not always verbal. Last June a Norwegian trade union delegation to an area notorious for child labour was attacked by three or four armed men. The delegation's guide and cameraman were severely beaten; the latter required hospitalisation. The police called the attackers "civic-minded" and warned the delegation against "unnecessarily antagonising factory owners".

More common, though, is the industrialist who plies the foreign investigator with coffee and cake, and tells him in his friendliest manner that child labour is a tradition the West cannot understand. "Our country has historically suffered from a labour shortage, a deficit of able-bodied men," says Imran Malik, a Lahore carpet exporter and vice-chairman of the Pakistan Carpet Manufacturers and Exporters Association. "Children have compensated for this shortage. They have helped construct Pakistan's infrastructure and advanced its industry. For thousands of years they have worked alongside their parents in their villages. The work they now do in factories and workshops is an extension of this tradition, and in most ways an improvement on it. The children earn more than they would elsewhere. They contribute to their family's security and raise their standard of living."

This argument is accurate only in its assertion that Pakistani children traditionally worked with their families. They seldom worked elsewhere until the 1960s, when the Islamic Republic's effort to expand its manufacturing base led to a spectacular increase in the number of children working outside the home. The rise in abuse was equally meteoric: children working in factories, beyond the reach of their families, were increasingly the victims of accidents, kidnapping, and mistreatment.

"IF employers would apply as much ingenuity to their manufacturing processes as they do to evading labour laws, we'd have no child labour problem," says Najanuddin Najmi, director- general of the Workers Education Programme, a government agency. "There's little doubt that inexpensive child labour has fuelled Pakistan's economic growth. Entire industries have relocated to Pakistan because of the abundance of cheap child labour and our lax labour laws. At the same time, child labour has hindered our industrial development. Why should a manufacturer invest in labour-saving technology when labour-intensive mechanisms are so much cheaper? We are discovering more and more factories that have been redesigned and retooled so that only children can work there."

Child labour has been a mixed curse for southern Asia, expanding industrial capacity while generating an unprecedented assortment of social problems. Unsurprisingly, Pakistan's leaders are of two minds on the subject. Speaking officially, they deplore the practice and have nothing but pity for the 11 million or so children working in factories, in fields, and on the streets. Speaking pragmatically, they regard it as a distasteful but unavoidable part of an emerging economy which time and prosperity will end. They are quick to take offence when activists suggest that they have ignored the problem.

"Westerners conveniently forget their own shameful histories when they come here," says Shabbir Jamal, an adviser to the Ministry of Labour. "Europeans addressed slavery and child labour only after they became prosperous. Just as we are catching up with the West in industrial development, so we are catching up in workplace and social reforms. We are accelerating the pace of reform and have resolved to create welfare and educational structures that will eradicate child labour in the foreseeable future."

Foreseeable may be a long way off. With a government that is at best ambivalent about social issues and an industrial sector resistant to reform, the task of abolishing child labour has fallen to the human rights community. But in a country where corruption is pervasive and education scarce, social activists are everyone's enemy. The ruling class despises them for assaulting its profitable traditions. The lower castes suspect them of ulterior motives. Consequently, activists are targets of slander, police harassment and lawsuits. They are also beaten, and on occasion killed.

Yet they persist, and sometimes they prevail. If human rights organisations are judged by the number of people they have helped, the Bonded Labour Liberation Front is probably the most successful in Pakistan. Since its founding, in 1988, the BLLF has led the fight against bonded and child labour, liberating 30,000 adults and children - frequently entire families - from brick kilns, carpet factories and farms, and placing 11,000 children in its own schools. At the same time, it has won 25,000 court cases against abusive employers, and helped to push the recent labour laws through the National Assembly.

"It's evident that if the enslaved workers are to be delivered from bondage," says Ehsan Ulla Khan, the BLLF's founder, "private citizens will have to do the delivering." With little funding, the BLLF wages a two-front war: while its legal advisers engage the courts and the legislature, its field staff shuttles around the country, informing workers of their rights. If a bonded labourer - child or adult - asks for help, the BLLF takes whatever legal action is necessary to secure his or her release.

One of the BLLF's leaders is a tall, pensive 39-year-old former artist whom I'll call Tariq. One day last summer, I accompanied Tariq as he visited a carpet workshop in a village 24 miles from Lahore. The size of a train carriage, the long, narrow room contained a dozen upright looms. On each rough-hewn workbench between the looms squatted a carpet-weaver. The room was dark and airless. A thermometer read 105 degrees, and the mud walls were hot to the touch. A window promised some relief, but it was closed against fabric-eating insects.

Of the 12 weavers, five were aged 11 to 14, and four were under 10. The two youngest were brothers named Akbar and Ashraf, aged eight and nine, both of whom had been bonded to the carpet-master at the age of five, and now worked six days a week. Their workday started at 6am and ended at 8pm, except, they said, when the master was behind on his quotas and forced them to work around the clock. They were small, thin, malnourished, spines curved from lack of exercise and squatting before the loom. Their hands were covered with callouses and scars, their fingers gnarled. Their breathing was laboured, suggestive of tuberculosis. Collectively, these ailments, which pathologists call captive child syndrome, kill half Pakistan's working children by the age of 12.

Tariq and I watched Akbar in silence for some time. A hand-knotted carpet is made by tying short lengths of fine coloured thread to a lattice of heavier white threads. The process is labour-intensive and tedious: a single 4ft 6in carpet contains well over a million knots and takes an experienced weaver four to six months to complete. The finest, most intricate carpets have the highest density of knots. The smaller the knot, the more the weaver can cram into his lattice and the more valuable the carpet. Small knots are, of course, made most easily by small hands. Each carpet Akbar completed would retail in the West for about pounds 1,500 - more than the boy would earn in 10 years.

As I watched Akbar at work, I felt alternating currents of admiration and anger. At one moment the boy seemed a prodigy, his carpet a lesson in geometry and colours. His patience was remarkable; his artistry seemed comparable to, say, that of a medieval tapestry master. Then he fumbled with his scissors, and I noticed a welt on his arm. Suddenly the monotony of tying thousands of threads each hour seemed like torture of the worst sort - like a death sentence, which in a way it is.

After 10 minutes Tariq knelt by Akbar's side and said softly, "You're very good at this. The master must be quite pleased with you." The boy shook his head and grimaced. "The master says I am slow and clumsy." Tariq placed a sympathetic hand on the boy's shoulder. "Have you been punished for poor work?" The boy shrugged and tied a knot. Tariq repeated the question. This time the boy tied a dozen knots before answering him in a whisper. "The master screams at us all the time, and sometimes he beats us," he said. "He is less severe with the younger boys. We're slapped often. Once or twice he lashed us with a cane. I was beaten 10 days ago, after I made many errors of colour in a carpet. He struck me with his fist." Akbar lifted a forelock, revealing a multicoloured bruise on his right temple. Evidently the master did not consider the blow sufficient punishment: "I was fined 1,000 rupees and made to correct the errors by working two days straight." The fine was added to his debt, and would extend his "apprenticeship" by several months.

"Do you like working here?"

"Oh, no, sir, staying here longer fills me with dread. I know I must learn a trade. But my parents are so far away, and all my friends are in school. My brother and I would like to be with our family, play with our friends. This is not the way children should live."

Afterwards, at the district police headquarters, Tariq told the duty sergeant about the workshop. The sergeant was perplexed. "Is this a crime?" he asked. "No one has ever complained before. What do you want us to do about it?" Tariq suggested sending officers to investigate, and the sergeant left to consult his superior. Two minutes later he returned with the superintendent, a gracious, moustachioed man of 50. "We are not unsympathetic to your complaint," the superintendent informed Tariq. "But the place you describe is registered as a home enterprise. It is run by a small landowner, and the workers are his immediate family. Family businesses are exempt from the labour laws."

IN 1992 Pakistani carpet exports fell for the first time in two decades. The fall was no more than three or four percentage points, but it indicated that Western consumers were shying away from luxury goods made by Third World children. Carpet-makers' fears were confirmed when in 1993 and 1994 sales fell sharply in several of the largest markets for Pakistani exports. Since carpets were an important source of foreign currency, the decline sent shock waves throughout the Pakistani economy. At a 1993 conference, officials of the Pakistan Carpet Manufacturers and Exporters Association blamed "subversive domestic organisations which are conducting misleading and false international media campaigns abroad ..." The conference concluded on an optimistic note: "The memory of Western consumers is brief and our enemies' meagre resources cannot sustain their destructive campaign for much longer."

Whatever hopes the carpet-makers had for a reversal of their misfortunes were dashed in 1994, when human rights organisations around the world acclaimed a 12-year-old former slave named Iqbal Masih for his crusade against child labour. A small, sickly boy, Iqbal had been bonded at the age of four to a village carpet-maker. He spent much of the next six years chained to a loom, which he worked 14 hours a day, six days a week. He was fed just enough to keep him functioning, and was beaten more often than the other children at the workshop, because, unlike them, he defied the master. At 10 he slipped his chains and sought the help of the BLLF, which secured him his freedom and a place in a school.

Frail as he was, Iqbal was possessed of an intellectual maturity beyond his years and a precocious sense of justice, which he applied, spectacularly, to the anti-slavery movement. By his 12th birthday he had helped to liberate 3,000 children from bondage at textile and brick factories, tanneries, steelworks - industries at the heart of the Pakistani economy. He was subsequently honoured by the International Labour Organisation, in Sweden, and by Reebok, which gave him its Human Rights Youth in Action Award. He became ABC's Person of the Week on US television. He used his unlikely celebrity status to remind consumers that "the world's 200 million enslaved children are your responsibility".

Iqbal attained a corresponding notoriety in Pakistan, particularly among the politicians and industrialists whose feudal practices he opposed. They responded with smear campaigns and the occasional threat of violence.

On 16 April 1995, Easter Sunday, Iqbal Masih was shot dead while visiting relatives in a rural village. The BLLF's Ehsan Ulla Khan declared: "I emphatically say that the carpet mafia is responsible for this brutal killing ... I have no doubt that the police are also a part of the conspiracy." Khan has been widely criticised for these fulminations, which he did not support with evidence; the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan has since concluded that the killing was an accident. None the less, Iqbal's death offered an opportunity to inject new momentum into the anti-child labour movement, and Khan was quick to exploit it.

Eight hundred mourners crowded into the Muridke cemetery for Iqbal's funeral. A week later, 3,000 protesters, half of them under 12, marched through Lahore demanding an end to child labour. A few days after the funeral Khan left Pakistan to consult with children's rights activists in Europe. There he repeated his accusations to great effect at conferences, on television, before lawmakers. Iqbal was proclaimed a "martyr for the cause of bonded labour"; his murder became a cause celebre among the intelligentsia. Khan called upon the UN Human Rights Commission to ban the import and sale of products made by children, especially carpets. "I appeal to importers and consumers: say no, only no, to child-made carpets," he said. "This is the last message of Iqbal. It would be an insult to his blood and memory if people continue to buy child-made products in any part of the world."

Western consumers have responded to Khan's plea. Bowing to public pressure, importers in the US, Sweden, Italy, Britain, France and Germany by last June had cancelled orders valued at $10m. Pakistan's industrialists responded by denying the existence of bonded labour in their factories. Shahid Rashid Butt, president of the Islamabad Carpet Exporters Association, condemned the BLLF and its allies as Jewish and Indian enemies who had launched a campaign to damage Pakistan's carpet industry for their own profit. His words were endorsed by the Pakistan Carpet Manufacturers and Exporters Association and echoed in the National Assembly.

"These charges flew in the face not just of reason but also of an extraordinary amount of evidence," says IA Rehman, director of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. "Anywhere else they would have been laughed at. Here they were accepted as fact and acted on." At the urging of politicians and industrialists, Pakistan's Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) last May launched an inquiry into the BLLF on the strength of claims that the organisation was supported by "Pakistan's enemies". At the same time, Pakistan's leading newspapers began running "exposes" of abolitionist leaders, the nicest of which characterised Ehsan Ulla Khan as a philandering bigamist with "indisputable ties to Jewish and Indian agencies hostile to Pakistan".

The FIA is a secret police force, and one of its best-kept secrets is whom it works for. Nominally an organ of the state, it is not above accepting freelance assignments from prominent individuals and commercial groups. On a Thursday afternoon in late June, the FIA raided the BLLF's Lahore headquarters. After lining the BLLF workers up against a wall, the commander ordered his 10 agents to "confiscate anything that may incriminate them". They packed up computers, filing cabinets, fax machines, photocopiers, telephones, bicycles - and the cashbox containing the monthly payroll. They were supervised by a small man who was distinctly not a policeman; he represented, it turned out, an association of manufacturers and exporters. Every so often he consulted with the commander. Several staff workers were taken away and held for three days for questioning.

Two days later another FIA detail raided the BLLF's training facility in Lahore, along with several of its primary schools around the country. Once again the agents seized everything movable. Teachers, drivers, secretaries, and peasant families seeking refuge from violent employers were interrogated along with administrators, advocates, attorneys, and fundraisers.

At the same time, the Pakistani press stepped up its campaign against the BLLF. Last summer a number of newspapers reported the following "facts": Ehsan Ulla Khan himself had murdered Iqbal Masih to win sympathy for the BLLF; Khan had misappropriated BLLF funds to support his own decadent lifestyle; Khan routinely used BLLF schoolchildren as sex partners and house slaves; Iqbal Masih was a 21-year-old midget whom Khan paid to masquerade as a carpet child; 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, and better working conditions. "The few children working on carpets," said one editorial, "do so after school, in their own homes, under the supervision of loving parents."

In the wake of these attacks, some of which have found echoes in the Western media, BLLF operations nearly shut down for lack of funds and staff. Membership has suffered, and many of the legal advisers and support staff, fearing reprisals, have fallen away. Those who remain are subject to almost constant harassment: the fortunate ones have their telephones tapped; the less fortunate are shadowed around the clock. The courts, meanwhile, have ignored their complaints about child labour and abusive treatment by employers.

In early June, the Federal Investigation Agency charged Khan, who was still abroad, and a BLLF strategist named Zafaryab Ahmad with sedition and economic treason, offences punishable by death. According to the FIA, "The accused conspired with the Indian espionage agency to exploit the murder of Iqbal Masih... causing a recurring huge financial loss to Pakistan's business interests abroad and paving the way for India to wage economic warfare against Pakistan." Ahmad was arrested and taken to a Lahore gaol and denied bail. The FIA has vowed to arrest Khan "the moment he returns".

Khan remains in Europe, an unhappy exile. "Our attorneys tell me I am of greater use to the BLLF here, speaking out against the authorities, than I would be inside a Lahore cell," he told me shortly after he left his country. "I fear for my people. The police have harassed many of them, and so many more have left us out of fear. We cannot pay our bills and our staff. Our schools may close, our students may end up in the very factories we saved them from. If the attacks do not stop soon, it is possible that the BLLF will perish. What will become of the children of Pakistan?"