In 1982 a baby boy was born to Inayat Bibi and Saif Masih. They named him Iqbal Masih. Sometime after Iqbal’s birth, Saif Masih deserted the family. While Iqbal’s mother worked, his older sisters took care of him and his older siblings. Iqbal did not go to school. Education was not compulsory or widely available in Pakistan. Very few poor children learnt to read and write. He spent his earliest years playing in the fields until he was ready to help his family by going to work.
To pay off the wedding of Saif’ oldest son, he turned to a local thekedar, an employer who owns a nearby carpet factory. In return for the loan, the employer expects collateral, a guarantee of something of value to secure the loan. Said Masih’s only valuable possessions were his children. Iqbal, a scrappy four-year-old, was considered ready to work. Little Iqbal would weave carpets until all the money, including an undisclosed amount of interest and expenses, was paid back.. From that day forward, Iqbal became a “debt-bonded slave.”
Iqbal’s job at the carpet factory was essentially no different from that of millions of other young people who work day and night to help their families. At four o’clock in the morning, he was picked up by the thekedar and driven to the factory where he was to work for the next six years of his life. He was put in an airless room, big enough for about twenty looms. A small, bare light bulb gave out little light. It was sticky and hot inside the room because all the windows were sealed tight to keep out any insects that might damage the wool.
When Iqbal completed his work as an apprentice, he was then ready to weave carpets. He worked beside twenty other boys. His earnings amounted to one rupee a day (two cents), even though he worked from four o’clock in the morning until seven in the evening. The children in the shop were not allowed to speak to one another. “If the children spoke, they were not giving the complete attention to the product and were liable to make errors,” Iqbal later told journalists. Many other freed child slaves told similar stories.
Lint and fluff floated in the air. Iqbal would breathe it in and cough it out. Sweat poured down Iqbal’s face as he leaned close to the loom. The thekedar screamed, “Don’t soil the wool!”
Iqbal and his fellow weavers were warned never to leave the factory during work hours. “If we tried to escape, we were threatened with being thrown in boiling oil,” he said. “If we were too slow, we often got lashed on our backs and heads.” Concentration was crucial. Mistaking a single knot led to fines or beatings. Daydreaming could have serious consequences. The sharp, crescent-shaped weavers’ tool would slip and nick his fingers. This happened many times.
Once, when Iqbal was so exhausted he began to doze off, the sharp knife slid, digging into the flesh of his forefinger. “Hold your hand up!” the thekedar shouted. “Don’t let the blood drip!” The carpet master did not want Iqbal’s blood to stain the precious wool thread. To stop the bleeding, the carpet master dripped hot oil onto the wound. The oil, used to seal the wound, stung horribly and Iqbal screamed. His screams were answered with a slap on the head and an order to get back to work.
Every afternoon the child slaves were given a half-hour lunch break. Iqbal said, “We were kept hungry.” The thekedar provided the youngsters a small portion of rice and lentils. Sometimes there would be a few other vegetables added to the meal. The cost of this simple meal was immediately added to the children’s paishgee, increasing their debt.
Iqbal said, “We weren’t allowed many days off. Even sick children were not allowed to rest.” If a child weaver complained that he was too sick to work, the chowkidar locked him in a dark closet known as the punishment room. “they also hung children upside down until they became sicker. Children were beaten,” said Iqbal.
Although most bonded children are docile and obedient, they are are not afraid to talk back. These children are often hit, chained to their looms, or locked in dark, musty closets. Iqbal would often talk back. He was beaten more often than the other children because, time and time again, he defied the master. He spoke up when he thought something was not right. “Sometimes I was fined.” In a way, the fines were worse than the beatings. They raised Iqbal’s debt higher and higher. Instead of paying off his bondage, he was increasing the time it would take to earn his freedom.
In Pakistan, children are forced to work in brick kilns, agriculture, carpet factories, restaurants, and factories manufacturing all kinds of goods from furniture, and sports goods, to surgical equipment. They also work as domestic labourers, where they are often exposed to mental and physical abuse and separated from their parents, being kept in a state of virtual imprisonment.
Iqbal the brave boy, however, never gave up hope. On one occasion, he managed to escape and reached the local police station. He told the police about how the factory owner had shackled him into slavery.
But he was brought back by the custodians of law to the factory owner for a petty bribe. This worsened Iqbal’s predicament. The factory owners became more ruthless than ever because of his insubordination. He and the other children were chained to keep them from escaping.
Oneday after he turned 10, Iqbal heard a speaker from the Bonded Labour Liberation Front (BLLF), a Pakistani community-based organization dedicated to freeing children from such child slavery. Hope resurfaced, and he escaped again.
Iqbal joined the Bonded Labour Liberation Front (BLLF). His story reached the ears of Ehsan Ullah Khan, Chairman of BLLF, who directed his efforts towards freeing Iqbal from bondage, and mercifully succeeded. He made it his mission to raise awareness about child slavery. He toured various cities of Pakistan where child slavery is known to exist. He also travelled internationally inviting masses to stand with him against child labour. He resumed his education and managed to complete four years of education in a two-year period. He said,
“Children should have pens in their hands, not tools.”
On 16 April 1995, Easter Sunday, at the age of 12, Iqbal was fatally shot by Ashraf Hero, a heroin addict, while visiting relatives in Muridke, Pakistan, cycling with his cousin in a village field. His funeral was attended by approximately 800 mourners. Following his death, Pakistani economic elites responded to declining carpet sales by denying the use of bonded child labor in their factories and employing the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) to brutally harass and arrest activists working for the Bonded Labour Liberation Front (BLLF). The Pakistani press conducted a smear campaign against the BLLF, arguing that child laborers receive high wages and favorable working conditions.
They may have killed him but his mission will always stay alive. He remains to be an inspiration for numerous local and international organisations fighting against child labour.
John 8:36 So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.