Fingerprints solve the social security problem for Pakistan’s Brick Kiln Workers

The Department of Labour Punjab and the ILO are working to extend labour laws and social protection to brick kiln workers. For some it starts with finding their fingerprints again.

Feature | 24 April 2014
When the ILO first started working with the government of Punjab to get brick kiln workers recognized by law as workers, the first step was to get them recognized as citizens of Pakistan. Many brick kiln workers do not have legal documents such as identity cards and birth certificates. Without birth certificates children can’t go to school because they can’t complete the admission documents, and, when they grow up, they can’t get identity cards because, to get one, they need a birth certificate. And so the cycle continues.

So, the first step seemed to be to help brick kiln workers get their basic citizenship documents. But as it turned out, this wasn’t simply a case of getting national identity cards made. Many of the brick kiln workers had to go a step further back and first recover their unique identity mark given by God, their fingerprints!

“Working rough with bricks even erases their fingerprints, as we found out when we tried to help then get their computerized national identity [citizenship] cards from NADRA (National Database and Registration Authority)”, said Raja Abbas, President of Association of Network for Community Empowerment, the ILO’s partner on a project for the empowerment of bonded labour. “You have to either sign or fingerprint the application form, and these brick kiln workers could do neither! We talked to doctors who advised us to make the workers use special gloves and apply medicine on their hands and follow a 15-day course after which the fingerprint will emerge from their calloused skin. This is what we did and this is how they got their fingerprints back – and only then, their identity cards”.

Getting an identity card paved the way for the workers to get social security cards. After a sustained advocacy campaign the Government also made an amendment to the labour laws, so that brick kilns were recognized as workplaces, their owners as employers, and bonded labourers working at the kilns, as workers. Once they were legally recognized as citizens and workers, they were registered by the Punjab Employees Social Security Institution (PESSI), opening the way for them to receive state social protection for health and education.

Speaking at the South Asia Labour Conference, (organized by the Department of Labour, Government of Punjab with technical assistance of the ILO), Ali Raza, Labour Officer at the Department explained that, “until recently there was no concept of social security for the brick kiln workers. In fact, as highlighted in another session on social security, only 2.1 million of the 57 million workers in Pakistan have access to social security”.

There is a large gap to fill, but it is encouraging to see that the Government of Punjab is working to expand social security to more and more categories of workers. Captain Muhammad Yousaf, Secretary, Department of Labour, Punjab said that “In line with the ILO conventions on prevention of Occupational Diseases, Forced Labour and Social Protection, we have also amended the Bonded Labor Act, making it mandatory to document payment of wages by kiln owners to workers, as a means of keeping tabs on any attempt at slave labour. For the first time about 7,000 kiln workers have been registered as recipients of social security”.

For many this apparently simple step has made the difference between life and death. Muhammad Ali, aged 55, was born in Hyderabad in the southern Sindh province of Pakistan and now works in Lahore at a brick kiln close to the new Bahria housing estate, where many of the bricks much have been made by his hands. He grew up helping his father and mother work in the brick kilns helping pay off a debt older than even his parents’ memory. The workers in brick-kilns live and work in crowded conditions, with little or no access to basic nutrition, clean water and general hygiene, exposed to pollutants, dust and disease. So, it was hardly surprising that Mohammad Ali contracted tuberculosis when he was just 20. But it wasn’t until he reached the age of 55, when he received a social security card under the ILO and Government of Punjab programme for bonded labourers, that he was able to get proper receive medical treatment at a hospital for workers. “Medicines are expensive”, he said. “But I now have a (social security) card against which I can get free medicine. If it weren’t for this, I wouldn’t be able to afford healthcare”.

Aurangzaib Khan, Frontier Post