Photographer Brandon Stanton visited Pakistan for 11 days
His photos give a face to the country's bonded laborers
They work at brick kilns across the country to pay off debts that keep growing
It may have been the heartbreaking stories of people enslaved to pay off ever deepening debts.
Or possibly the almost unimaginable heroism of the woman who works to free them.
Either way, in the past few days, tens of thousands of people have donated money – now more than $2 million – to the Bonded Labour Liberation Front, a small organization in Lahore that works to end bonded labor in Pakistan.
It started with a photo of the group’s founder Syeda Ghulam Fatima, draped in yellow standing amid the red earth of a brick kiln, posted to the Facebook page of “Humans of New York,” the project started by photographer Brandon Stanton to document the ordinary lives of New Yorkers.
“Described as a modern day Harriet Tubman, Fatima has devoted her life to ending bonded labor. She has been shot, electrocuted, and beaten numerous times for her activism,” Stanton posted on the HONY Facebook page.
As well as introducing readers to Fatima, Stanton posted the shocking testimonies of workers who toil day after day at brick kilns in Pakistan, paying off debts they have no hope of clearing.
“It’s like quicksand. They only pay you 200 rupees per 1,000 bricks, and it all goes to them, and the debt keeps growing,” said one unnamed man from Lahore. “The brick kiln owners get together and they sell us to each other. Just 10 days ago my entire family was sold for 2.2 million rupees,” he said.
Power wielded by kiln owners
According to a report prepared for the International Labor Organization, millions of Pakistan’s poorest people are working for little or no money to pay back debts to their employers.
Stanton told CNN’s Richard Quest that the abuse is perpetuated by wealthy kiln owners who are appear to operate with impunity, despite Pakistani laws against bonded labor.
“Bricks are 3% of the GDP in Pakistan. And the people who own these brick kilns are immensely rich. And they influence the legislature in a way that’s really hard to imagine,” he said.
“What happens is these poor illiterate farmers in desperate situations are tricked into taking these very small loans in exchange for work for a few weeks on the brick kilns.
“When this period of time is done, they go back and say, ‘OK, it’s time to leave.’ And these owners say ‘no, you’ve lived in our house, you’ve eaten our food. Now you owe us twice as much, get back to work.’”
One post recounts how a farmer found himself in bonded labor.
“My sister’s kidneys were failing. We tried to raise the money to save her. We sold our cattle. We sold our property. We sold everything we had. When we ran out of options, I took a 5,000 rupee loan ($50) from the brick kiln. I thought I could pay it back by working for 15 or 20 days.”
Within weeks the loan turned to 11,000 rupees ($108), then 30,000 ($294). Now his debt is 350,000, the equivalent of $3,400.
“My sister died a long time ago,” he said. “There’s no way out. Soon my debt will pass on to the next generation.”
The plight of Pakistan’s bonded kiln workers has been well documented in the past, but Humans of New York brought them – and Fatima – direct to the Facebook feeds of its 14.8 million followers.
CNN asked for comment from the Pakistani government but at the time of this article’s publication had not received a reply.
In the early 1990s, Pakistan introduced the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, including imprisonment and fines for offenders, and in the past has responded to CNN’s reporting on the issue by listing the practical measures it’s taken to protect workers.
However, according to a recent ILO report – and the testimonies of workers – the problem persists.
The Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (PILER) told CNN just one person had been convicted since the Act came into force in 1992.
A spokesperson for PILER said it estimated there were 10-12 million people in bonded labor in Pakistan, out of a population of around 191 million.
For years, Fatima and her husband have struggled to free and rehabilitate trapped workers – on one occasion, dressing in rags to find a four-year-old child who was captured by the kiln owners as her family tried to escape.
After days of searching, they heard crying from the kiln owner’s house, and went to court to demand action from police. Officers searched the house, found the girl, who refused to eat, talk or cry for weeks, the HONY post said.
“Fatima eventually learned that every time the girl would cry for food, the owner would beat her,” Stanton wrote.
After each Facebook post, a link was posted to a fund raising site called “Let’s Help Fatima End Bonded Labor”
Within 12 hours, $1 million had been donated.
Within 72 hours, it had doubled.
“Before this fundraiser, Fatima had exhausted her financial resources in the struggle against bonded labor to the point where she feared that she’d be unable to pay her own medical bills,” Stanton wrote.
He later posted Fatima’s response: “I don’t think I have the words to tell you how grateful we are.”
“This is a big step for laborers that this has received so much attention, and that their voices have reached a global stage and we are being heard. With this we hope to end bonded labor in Pakistan,” she said.
CNN’s Sophia Saifi contributed to this report.