Bricks of bondage

Humans of New York raises $2 million to help “modern-day Harriet Tubman” end bonded labor in Pakistan

“I’ve been attacked and threatened so many times that I no longer fear death”

Syeda Ghulam Fatima (

Those who own the 200,000 brick kilns of rural Pakistan enslave about 4.5 million women, men, and children through bonded labor, activist Syeda Ghulam Fatima estimates. Though forced labor is illegal, desperate brick kiln workers fall victim to a life without compensation after they accept small loans in exchange for agreeing to work for a short period of time. They are then exploited through inflation rates that grow with time and leave little possibility for repayment. Promises of food and accommodation turn into interest accrued and mounting debt that is passed along to children after death. Generations of families have been born into chains made of brick.

Most workers are illiterate and unaware of their rights, after having been intimidated and denied education by powerful brick kiln owners, who often bribe police and officials to neglect the laws. The brick kiln industry represents about three percent of Pakistan’s GDP, so speaking out in opposition poses risks. “I’ve been attacked and threatened so many times that I no longer fear death,” Fatima told Humans of New York (HONY) on August 16. In only four days, the organization she runs has received over $2 million in donations from more than 73,000 people around the world through HONY’s IndieGoGo campaign, established to help her fight bonded labor.

Described as the “modern-day Harriet Tubman,” Fatima and her efforts to eradicate bonded brick kiln labor were featured in HONY’s summer travel series set in Lahore, Pakistan, where she was photographed alongside brick kiln workers by founder Brandon Stanton. She and her husband lead Bonded Labour Liberation Front (BLLF), an organization designed to educate Pakistan’s bonded laborers by providing advocacy, legal aid and rehabilitation for workers through Freedom Centers established in rural areas. The group boasts a track record of brick kiln union organization and ending violence against women. For her activism, Fatima has been shot, electrocuted and repeatedly beaten.

“You cannot make people work by beating and chaining them,” she said. “Labor rights need to be regulated, owners have the right to make profit but not through abuse, and deprivation. That is not an industry, that is slavery.”

The impact of HONY’s fundraising is expected to help her efforts greatly (the group notes that the purchasing power of a dollar in Pakistan is about five times greater than in the United States). All funds will go directly to help her organization open more Freedom Centers and further facilitate the emancipation of the abused and exploited bonded laborers, like those also profiled in the HONY series.

In one image, Fatima is shown standing next to a middle-aged man who said he was beaten then tied naked to a tree for attempting to organize. The local police allegedly helped brick kiln owners break into his house, and his daughters were paraded naked in the streets. His story is one of many featured.

With the new funding, her organization’s goal is to immediately build a Freedom Center in Lahore that will focus on rehabilitation that allows “workers to be treated with the rights they deserve as citizens.” In a note of thanks posted with a final portrait, Fatima spoke of the work ahead.

“Pakistan faces a lot of challenges, and we want industry to thrive in Pakistan,” she said. “But the laborers must be free.”

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