Iqbal Masih, a Pakistani Child Hero who Fought Against Debt Slavery

Iqbal Masih
Child hero: Igbal Masih – Credit@

An Example of the Struggle for Debt Slavery

Children’s slavery is a social evil that has plagued every country all over the world. It’s not a matter for a single nation but a worldwide issue that all peoples must join hands to erase. Iqbal Masih, an unhappy child, is one of the bonded slaves who suffered the misery of slavery. The poverty led to his life in slavery. However, he found a way to escape his current miserable situation. More than that, he is a childhood hero for standing up to fight against slavery. It becomes a child’s mirror of the slavery fight.

Slavery – a current social issue

A child maid
A child maid in a family – Credit: WCPF

A global issue

The United Nations defines a slave-like state where a child works as a situation where the owner imposes so much power or threat over children that they can’t deny or quit the work. Every child has to be protected from labour exploitation and work that is harmful to their health. All nations have signed and given formal consent to the UN Convention on the Rights of the child. All employers are prohibited from hiring children under the age of 12. However, millions of children are exploited for individual benefits, including labour or debt slaves, soldiers, and the commercial sex industry. It is estimated that around 1.2 million children are trafficked within their own countries or to other nations.

Slavery – a profitable business

Children are weaving
Children are weaving – Credit: ABC Oriental Rug.

Why has the slavery business developed all over the world? It generates an amazing benefit for employers. Every year, it gives as much as $150 bn in profit. In the past, slave traders had suffered the cost of trips and mortality rates of slaves. Thanks to a great advance of modern technology and transportation, current labour exploiters reduce overheads. Additionally, massive immigration into developed countries has become a convenient means to provide a large supply of vulnerable and exploitable people. The human supply goes to many fields, such as agriculture, beauty, fashion, and the sex industry.


Pakistan – Credit: RFI

The Islamic Republic of Pakistan is a nation in South Asia. It is one of the most populous countries with a population of more than 225.2 million. Also, it has the world’s second-largest Muslim population. Like most other nations all over the world, Pakistan bans both debt slavery and child labour. However, these laws are not effective in all regions. As a result, millions of children between the ages of four to fourteen are working in brutal and filthy states. The country’s factories have the best interest of child labourers at heart.

The low cost of child exploitation gives an advantageous edge to Pakistani companies over their competitors, particularly in carpet production. Not surprisingly, American and European businesses pay special attention to low-price, high-quality carpets. The surging demand for child-made carpets from other countries has made Pakistan treble its production in the past two decades. To satisfy this surging importation from foreign countries, owners expand production at current factories and build many premises wherever they can. In other words, the growth of carpet production increases the labour exploitation of children. In some places, around one million children work as full-time carpet weavers.

Children’s Slavery

Children slavery
Children slavery – Credit: 2010 Getty Images

Iqbal Masih

Iqbal Masih was born into a low-income family in Muridke, a small, suburban village outside Lahore. The birth of Iqbal Masih seems to be a bad omen to the family. Not for a long time after his birth, his father, Saif Masih, left the family without any explanation. Iqbal’s mother, Inayat, accepted the current situation without any complaint. She began to work as a housecleaner for rich families to make her livelihood. Nevertheless, she found it not enough to feed all the family members on her humble income.

At that time, Iqbal was too young to know his family’s problems. Only did he spend his time playing with neighbouring children in the fields near his two-room accommodation. When his mother went to work, his older sisters stayed home to take care of him. One day, his life changed drastically when he came to the age of four. In 1986, Iqbal’s older brother planned to get married to his school girlfriend after 3 years of love. His brother wanted to hold a wedding party that required a big sum of money. Although the family was in need, the brother insisted on organizing a fairly big party to satisfy the bride’s family.

For a low-income family in Pakistan like Iqbal’s one, the unique way to have money is to borrow from local employers. These owners are good at this kind of barter. It means that the employer lends to a debtor a sum of money in exchange for the bonded labour of a child. Iqbal’s mother borrowed 600 rupees (around $12) from an owner who ran a carpet-weaving business to cover the wedding organisation. It was a crossroad in Iqbal’s lifetime. He was sold into bondage because of his brother’s wedding.

Iqbal Masih became a debt slave or bonded labour.

Iqbal works in a carpet factory
Iqbal works in a carpet factory – Credit: World’s Children’s Prize.

According to the system of loans, which is inherently inequitable, the owner has all the power. Iqbal was forced to work early in the morning the whole year without any wage to learn the skill of carpet weaving. While working in a factory, it is really exploitable that the factory didn’t provide Iqbal with all the meals. Also, the employers would add the price of all the tools Iqbal needed for the work to the original loan. During work, if or when he made any mistake or damaged anything, he got a fine that would be added to the loan. The bonded labour incurs the interest of the loan the employer calculates.

Bonded labour means that a child has to work for an owner until the loan is paid back. The loan and its interest burden children have suffered throughout their lives make it impossible to have freedom. Meanwhile, they have faced the torture and indignity of guards and owners if they make any mistake while working in unhealthy conditions. Thus, freedom is a child’s dream too far out of reach.

As a result, Iqbal’s family suffered an increase in the loan due to the interest year after year. Iqbal had no way to escape from the situation of a debt slave or work off. He lived in bondage for life. By the time Iqbal came up to ten, the loan had reached 13,000 rupees or about $260. With such a system of bonded slaves, millions of children are facing an impasse in their future. Their path of education is beyond their reach or only a dream.

Working conditions

Working condition at a carpet factory
Working conditions at a carpet factory – Credit: HuffPost

The work conditions in these factories are really horrible and unbelievable. Like other bonded children, Iqbal was obliged to sit on a wooden bench and bend forward to make millions of knots in carpets. They had to follow a concrete pattern, using each thread to tie each knot carefully. Furthermore, they strictly obey the employer’s regulation: no speaking to each other during work. If they ignored their products, they incurred beatings from guards or cut their own hands with a sharp tool. In addition, they worked at least 14 hours a day, six days a week.

The room was sweltering hot in terms of the workplace because guards closed all the windows to protect the wool’s quality and prevent children’s escape. There were two light bulbs hung over dozens of bonded children. If the children replied rudely, ran away, or got physically sick, they would get cruel punishment. The punishment might be some beatings, being tied to children’s looms, extending the period of isolation in the dark, and the worst: being hung upside down. Iqbal committed many faults and suffered a large number of disciplines. Subsequently, he had to pay 60 rupees (about 20 cents) a day after completing his apprenticeship.

Iqbal’s escape

One day, a little child in Iqbal’s room got a severe fever. Ghullah, the employer, tied the child’s feet and hung him upside down. It was one of the examples of punishment. “You stay like this until I change my mind,” roared Ghullah. A few days later, Iqbal decided to stand up with some little boys. They plucked up their courage to run away from the factory when the owner was not there. Each of them came back home and played with their family members without knowing what was waiting for them. The owner was distraught as guards watched out so carelessly that some children could sneak out. After firing some guards because of the lack of responsibility, he went to the house of those children to get them.

The following morning, he came to Iqbal’s house while Iqbal was sleeping on a mat. He woke Iqbal up by grabbing him by his head. When recognizing what had happened to him, Iqbal was caught and put in a car to go to the factory. Entering the premises, the owner poured his fury into Iqbal by beating Iqbal with anything within his reach. Then he chained and put all the run-away children in a small dark room for a few days before releasing them.

A turning point

Iqbal at school
Iqbal at school – Credit: WCPF

Finally free

Very early in the morning of October 1992, taking the opportunity of the guards’ carelessness, again he sneaked out the side door to run away from the factory. Seeing a tractor carrying many adults and children passing by, he jumped on to take a lift to the Bonded Labour Liberation Organization meeting. The meeting gave Iqbal a chance to learn about the law against debt slavery. Ehsan raised the fact that people in Pakistan don’t adhere to the law. The police and courts are often in favour of employers rather than the poor.

Muhammad Ehsan Ullah Khan founded the Bonded Labour Liberation Front (BLLF) in Pakistan and freed more than 100,000 bonded slaves. Ehsan made a great effort to erase children’s slavery in South Asia. Also, he stood up as a pioneer to raise this issue in the United Nations, speaking at many conferences. As a result, he appeared in many books and interviews on various social media. Ehsan played a key role in turning Iqbal’s life by proposing Iqbal to Reebok International Award in Boston.

It is an interesting chance for Iqbal to listen, with interest, to Ehsan’s presentation about the law against debt slavery. The fact is that people don’t obey the law, and the police and courts often help factory owners rather than poor people. When Ehsan asked Iqbal to come up to the stage to speak in front of many children, he hesitated for a while. Finally, he plucked up his courage to hold a microphone to tell his story about debt slavery and experiences at the carpet weaving factory. The more he spoke, the more he felt confident, as everyone had spelt bound with his speech.

Ehsan was impressed with Iqbal’s intelligence, bravery and heart-breaking stories and wanted to free him from existing debt slavery. He negotiated with Ghullah to release Iqbal from the carpet factory. But Ghullah refused this proposal right away. Ehas didn’t give up and tried many ways to combine his colleagues’ support to help Iqbal to freedom.

A new future for Iqbal

Iqbal Masih
Iqbal Masih at meeting – Credit: Iqbal Masih Foundation

Once free, Iqbal was happy to attend BLLF school in Lahore. Since he liked studying, he completed four-year studies in just two years. At school, he developed natural leadership skills increasingly as there were many windows of opportunity for him to have spoken in a class. Additionally, he led demonstrations and meetings against modern slavery. Some days, he was disguised as a carpet factory worker to learn more about working conditions. He didn’t recognise this was a dangerous expedition. Thanks to these journeys, he collected lots of valuable information, which helped close down factories and release a hundred children. This caused severe damage to employers and created hatred towards Iqbal.

A threat

One day, Iqbal came back home to visit the family after a long time. Another carpet maker threatened to kidnap Iqbal’s mother and himself if he didn’t return to work to pay off the debt his mother loaned to hold his brother’s wedding. He ignored this warning. The third carpet producer promised his sister that her young brother was walking like a judge in the street, but they would get him one day. The sister, who never dared to be rude to the adult, shouted at him: “Shut up”. The carpet producer asked her to watch out, or they would get her life.

Last day of Iqbal

On Sunday, April 16, 1995, Iqbal took a bus home to Muridke to join his family for Easter. After spending a few days with his mother and siblings, he headed over to his uncle’s family. There, he met up with two cousins for a while. All of them brought his uncle dinner. On the way, they came upon a stranger who shot at Iqbal with a shotgun. Iqbal passed away immediately. One of the cousins got injured in his arm, and the other was lucky all in one piece. The following day, Iqbal was buried in front of over 800 mourners.

Iqbal’s victory

Iqbal led a demonstration
Iqbal led a demonstration – Credit: WCPF

Iqbal becomes a child hero around the world in the fight against debt slavery. In October 1994, he paid a visit to Sweden to tell school children about the life of a bonded slave like him in Pakistan. Many newspapers interviewed and featured him as bonded labour on the front page. As a result, many owners in his home countries suffered from what he denounced in public. Iqbal’s struggles in different ways negatively influence the export of rugs or carpets because foreign customers boycotted business with carpet companies.

Iqbal received many awards throughout his life: being honoured by the International Labour Organization in Sweden, Reebok’s 1994 Human Rights Youth Action Award, and ABC’s “Person of the Week” Award in the USA. Iqbal deserved what he achieved since he stood up to fight against the powerful people and speak out the evil.

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