Bonded Labor: A Disparity’s Child

So, let me intro you the team that tries to make sense of that: Ammar's understanding of the roads, people, and norms of Lahore is beyond any of us. Neha's journalistic sensibility makes you question your own values. And me, Zaki, who tries to see the issue from a foreign perspective.


When I met Fatima for the first time, she struck off as a lovely, graceful lady. At the same time, she managed to command respect from everyone at the Bonded Labour Liberation Front. Now, those are a few signs of a great leader.

Fatima was very comfortable in front of the camera too. I did an RTVF Documentary class with Debra Tolchinsky and found out how hard it is to get great cast for a documentary. Fortunately, Fatima knew how to be present in front of a camera. Her awareness of herself subjected to the camera is awesome. When we lacked in our interview with ex-bonded laborers, she would chip in to bring genuine thoughts and emotions from them. She takes her time. She’s very charismatic.

It’s not surprising, especially after all the media coverage that she received after her feature in Humans of New York. That includes her receiving the Clinton Global Citizen Award in 2015.

Fatima holds a picture of her with John Kerry during the ceremony of Aurora Prize, 2016.

We had the chance to Skype with a producer from VICE, Fazeelat Aslam, who has worked with Fatima since 2011, for a feature doc, and got to know how much dedication Fatima has for the cause. We found out from her that even after all the travels and threats Fatima faced, Fatima continues to work on the grassroots level more confidently than ever.

An ex-bonded laborer confides in Fatima.

The picture above shows a man, from Bahwalpur, south of Pakistan, intimately tells how he managed to leave one of the brick kilns alone without his family. He fears that his family may not think he is alive anymore. Fatima hears these stories every other day. I feel that it takes out-of-this-world dedication to keep fighting this good fight.

Just like any research, things change for the better or worse. We faced a few bumps along the way, considering how delicate access can be for this subject matter and of course, the weather. We have a few surprises too (pictured below).

The man, finally, together with his family strikes a liberation pose with Fatima.

When Brandon Stanton suggests that Fatima leaves Pakistan and operate BLLF from overseas, she smirked at the idea. She is here to finish what she started.

Us with Fatima and one of her managers (Neha, far left, me, in the middle, and Ammar, far right)




We set out for Lahore to find out why the practice of bonded labor is still happening despite it being illegal in Pakistan. Pre-assumptions aside, we needed to speak with people who understand the topic well. So far, we spoke with those who are in the brick kiln industry, which practices bonded labor widely, a lawyer and an activist.

My capable teammates worked with local fixers to get us in touch with brick kiln owners, whose kilns are on the outskirts of Lahore, Kasur. It was easier to film them than expected because I feel that we were ready to hear their perspective on the topic. Before anything else, let me show you some pictures from our time in the brick kilns.

Laborers and their family gather for a photo at their home.

Children pose for a photo in the brick kiln.

Father and son.

Children learn to read in the study area.

Neha mics up a laborer before we interview her.

These laborers do not have access to safety nets that should be provided by the government. It is not surprising that someone else fills that void. That someone else could be anybody. For the sake of our study, they are brick kiln owners. These laborers needed money to start off their lives and turned to these owners. In return? They need to work in the brick kilns.

The laborers often continue to borrow money for their needs. At the same time, due to the loan interest, they are often serving their time in the kilns to pay off the debt owed by their parents or grandparents. That’s why bonded labor is also known as modern-day slavery. I suggest you read this article written by Mehvish Muneera, a lawyer whom we spoke with, to understand the practice through a legal lens.

You can blame the disparity in literacy between brick kiln owners and the laborers. These laborers do not understand the loan agreement that they signed up for. The owners, on the other hand, argue that they provide basic needs like housing and healthcare to these laborers, something the government does not provide.

In March 1992, the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act was passed, hoping to end the “bonded labor system.” However, due to the lack of law enforcement, the absence of a safety net for these laborers and the increasing need for bricks in new residential towns, the practice continues to this day.

Since the human resources of the brick kiln industry work outside of the law, there is plenty of room for further exploitation. While the lack of law enforcement is apparent, someone else takes the matter into her own hands.

You may have seen her from Humans of New York. Her name is Syeda Ghulam Fatima.

Syeda Ghulam Fatima.


Before writing about the pressing issue of bonded labor, let me dedicate this post to one of the most festive times for Muslims: Eidulfitri. After a month of fasting during Ramadhan, we celebrate by performing a mass prayer in the morning and get together with our family and friends after that. We would catch up with each other and eat, a lot. That’s for my family, at least.

I arrived in Lahore, Pakistan, a little less than a month ago. I had the privilege of spending the second week celebrating Eid with Ammar’s family and taking some photos of my experience. Lucky for me, my sister, back home in Singapore, enjoys taking photos too. I thought I could use this post to show you some similarities I learned between the Eid celebration in Singapore and Pakistan through our photos.

1) A Hungry Guest Is an Angry Guest

Nothing says Eid like eating like you have fasted for a whole month. Just like in Singapore, in a typical Pakistani household, the morning of Eid is spent cooking for the countless incoming guests.


My mom prepares some Malay dishes before guests arrive. Credit: Nur Munawarah


Ammar’s father waves as he prepares bread at the back of the house.

2) Traditional Clothes Are the Best

Eid fashion is the best. During this time of the year, my family will flaunt the traditional Malay dresses, like baju kurung and kebaya to name a few. Just as back home, the traditional clothes here in Pakistan, shalwar kameez and kurta, are just as beautiful.


My cousins in traditional Malay dresses. Credit: Nur Munawarah


Ammar’s sister flaunts her dress.

3) Kids Are Photogenic

Who doesn’t like photos of kids? In traditional clothes? What?!


My nephew wonders which one he should snack first. Credit: Nur Munawarah

My niece struts her stuff. Credit: Nur Munawarah


Ammar’s niece gracefully embraces the roads of Lahore.

Ammar’s nephew looks through our soul.

4) Proud of Our Matriarch

My grandmother plays a pivotal role in the family. She brings the family together. Everyone hopes to get her blessings in whatever we intend to pursue. My time with Ammar’s family in Pakistan confirms that his grandmother has a similar role too.


My paternal step-grandmother. Credit: Nur Munawarah

My uncle asks for my grandmother’s forgiveness before he leaves. Credit: Nur Munawarah


Ammar’s paternal grandmother.

Ammar’s father poses with his mother.

5) Family. Keluarga. Khandaan.

After all, Eid is about getting our families together, be it in Singapore or Pakistan. Let’s end this post with some family portraits.


My uncle with his family. Credit: Nur Munawarah

My cousin with his wife and daughter. Credit: Nur Munawarah

Three generations of inspiring women: mother, grandmother, and sister (left to right) Credit: Nur Munawarah


Ammar’s maternal cousins with their parents.

Ammar’s paternal cousins with their mother.

Ammar’s family, who has been hosting me beyond well.


Ammar Younas casually stands in front of the Badshahi Mosque, a magnificent piece of Mughal architecture.

Neha Rashid packs after spending a day at one of the brick kilns.

Zaki Hussain, me, attempts to point at the Minar-i Pakistan, where the Lahore Resolution was signed.

The effect of disparity is a bit funny. The advantaged ones get complacent while the disadvantaged get comfortable in their complacency. And then you have people like us in the middle who struggle to make sense of it. Lahore, just like any other city (looking at you, Chicago), holds families who live very different experiences. So, let me intro you the team that tries to make sense of that: Ammar’s understanding of the roads, people, and norms of Lahore is beyond any of us. Neha’s journalistic sensibility makes you question your own values. And me, who’s curious about the issue and excited about immersing in a new, beautiful country – Pakistan.

Here goes nothing!