The 'Harriet Tubman of Pakistan' has raised over $1.5 million to help her end slavery there

Screen Shot 2015 08 18 at 2.41.50 PMYouTube/RevealSyeda Ghulam Fatima fights for the rights of poor brick kiln workers in Pakistan, and photographer behind HONY is trying to help.

Humans of New York photographer Brandon Stanton has ventured out of, well, New York. For the past few months, he’s been posting photos from Pakistan.

After travelling and posting photos from around the country, Stanton took the unusual step of focusing on one issue. For the past few days, he’s been trying to raise money to fight Pakistan’s modern version of slavery: the bonded labour at brick kilns.

“Over 20,000 brick kilns operate in Pakistan, supported by millions of workers, and the system is largely underpinned by an extremely close cousin of slavery — bonded labour,” Stanton explained on Facebook. “If the laborer dies, the debt is passed on to his or her children.”

Impoverished laborers throughout Pakistan often work in brick kilns to pay off old family debts, toiling without running water or even bathrooms, according to an Associated Press article from last year. The AP profiled 

Amna Bhatti, who started working at age 10 to pay off her parents’ debt and is now trying to pay down her husband’s loans. 

The woman leading the charge against the bonded labour practice is Syeda Ghulam Fatima, the head of the Bonded Labour Liberation Front whom Stanton dubbed “The Harriet Tubman of Pakistan.” Stanton started an Indiegogo campaign to raise $US100,000 for BLLF in a month-long campaign. It quickly smashed that goal, raising over $US1.8 million in the past three days.

Bricks are “the primary unit of construction in Pakistan,” Fatima told Stanton. She estimates that 4.5 million Pakistanis are working in slavery conditions under what she describes as a sort of brick kiln mafia. She describes the owners of brick kilns as powerful, rich men who ensure their friends are elected to legislatures and who bribe and intimidate the police.

An Al Jazeera article from last year found abuse, trafficking, and child labour rife throughout the industry.

The bonded labour practice is actually illegal in Pakistan, but brick kiln workers may not be aware of the country’s labour laws. 

“If Fatima succeeds in her goal of providing education, legal assistance, and rehabilitation to every bonded laborer in Pakistan, the system will naturally collapse,” Stanton wrote on Facebook.

In her fight against brick kiln owners, Fatima told Stanton stories about being intimidated, beaten, and even electrocuted. Here, in Stanton’s photos, is her story and the story of the brick kiln workers.


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