The Homegirl Project chatted with renowned Pakistani labor activist Syeda Ghulam Fatima about her work ending bonded labor in brick kilns.
ZS: Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to sit with us and have a talk. Cn you tell us a bit about you and your cause behind Bonded Labour Liberation Front (BLLF)?
SF: Forced Labour is prevalent in wider Pakistani society. It is an inherent feature of the brick kiln industry and agriculture, which have low wages and are out of the social protection network. Brick kiln and agriculture workers have to take advance debt to meet basic social and human needs. On the other hand, employers give advance debts to trap workers for cheap labour and more production. In this situation, my organization—Bonded Labour Liberation Front (Pakistan)—is striving for the elimination of forced labour.
ZS: What do you hope to accomplish through Bonded Labour Liberation Front (BLLF)?
SF: I have a set of certain targets to accomplish through BLLF. The ultimate result of all my struggles is to earn dignity and worth for victims of the slavery system and release and rehabilitation of slave workers. In this regard, BLLF has adopted multi-dimensional strategies, such as organizing and mobilizing workers to raise their common voice for their rights and legal entitlements; advocacy and lobbying to engage primary stakeholders and provide them services to meet their immediate needs so that they may be enabled to participate in struggle. Keeping in view these strategies, we have planned: to establish a strong sectorial Brick Kiln Workers federation and Brick Kiln Workers Confederation linked up with relevant international labour forums, with equal representation of women and all excluded groups. We also plan to establish the Fatima Freedom Resource Centres all across the country for the release, rehabilitation and medical assistance of victims of slavery system. The FFRC (Friends of Felines Rescue Center) shall also serve as forum for research and labour education to develop networking at regional and global level.
ZS: What made you want to become a labour and human rights activist in the first place?
SF: First of all, my family environment and my father’s activism encouraged me to become a human rights activist. Secondly, the key and foremost factor is circumstances that led me towards activism.
ZS: Who are your biggest influencers or activists that you look up to?
SF: I was immensely inspired by my father and then, by the honourable and undaunted personality late Asma Jahangir. She was my mentor and my teacher. I am much inspirited by her. I consider her sudden death a big loss to our country.
ZS: What are some of the struggles faced in your line of work?
SF: Good question. My whole life, from the very first day, after a tough strive, I succeeded to convince my father for a visit of brick kiln. Seeing as at that time, I was just a teenager and visiting a kiln was a big risk. Before 1988, it was a huge challenge to raise the issue of the bonded/forced labour for the reason that at that point in time, there was no legislation against this system of modern day slavery. I remember I had to walk in a water course for more than three kilometres to rescue a family in the area of then-President, Mr. Faroq Lughari. The time when the police brutally beat me, arrested hundreds of workers and lodged a fake FIR against me and many of my workers. That time, we didn’t have enough resources to provide moral support and meals to arrested workers, to meet the needs of their families at home who were also pressurized by the brick kiln owners to give statements against me just to set their family members free; over all, proceeding with false cases. Even submission of bail bonds was a big challenge. Survival and sustainability after murderous attempts and gun-shootings at me and one of my brothers, from which who became disabled, was an extensive challenge.
ZS: As a woman who is extremely passionate about social justice and human rights, where do you derive your strength?
SF: God has gifted me with an aptitude to choose difficult task. For me, easy task or work is worthless. By nature, I accept challenges only. I have only economy worth three or four brick kilns against a total force of twenty thousand brick kilns. But no threat or temptation could shake my confidence and defeat me because of my dedication, commitment and association and passion for my workers. It is my righteousness, truthfulness, fairness to my cause that strengthens me and provides me inner power. I don’t remember the moment and day when workers raised this slogan “Peshgi da khatamah, Syeda Fatima” (Syeda Fatima is symbol to end slavery system). Now, this slogan has become popular and keeps me ever reminding my responsibility that provides energy. When a freed family comes and embraces me with a sense of liberty, I get recharged with their valuable remarks. When a rehabilitated family meets me in some festival with their good colourful dresses and smile on their faces, I get power. And when I hear about some case of cruelty on slaves, my mind and soul gets a strange current and power to help them. At such movements, I do not worry about if it is day or night or any stern climate, nothing can stop me from coming in motion.
ZS: What would you like to say to all the women or future passionate activists facing hardships or unfavourable conditions to get where they want to?
SF: There is nothing impossible with dedication, commitment, and sequential extensive struggle. If your cause is true and you consider it true from the core of your heart, endure appropriate struggle, then no one can defeat you.
ZS: Is there anything else you want to touch on about any of these aforesaid subjects for our readers?
SF: I appeal to everyone who is blessed with humanism and a positive mind-set to unite as one and contribute to peace and humanity.