16th APRIL – INTERNATIONAL DAY AGAINST CHILD SLAVERY Iqbal Masih

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    In rural Pakistan, the parents of Iqbal Masih sold him into bondage to a carpet manufacturer for $200, because they could not take care of him. He was four years old. For 6 years Iqbal was forced to squat, often chained, before a carpet loom. He was constantly beaten, verbally abused. He was not fed well, and as a result, his growth was stunted by severe malnutrition and years of cramped immobility in front of a loom. His back curved from lack of exercise and from bending to his loom for 14 hours a day. His hands were scarred and callused and his fingers were gnarled from the repetitive work of tying thousands of knots every day. His breathing was labored from the carpet dust that he inhaled and that affected his lungs.

    In rural Pakistan, the parents of Iqbal Masih sold him into bondage to a carpet manufacturer for $200, because they could not take care of him. He was four years old. For 6 years Iqbal was forced to squat, often chained, before a carpet loom. He was constantly beaten, verbally abused. He was not fed well, and as a result, his growth was stunted by severe malnutrition and years of cramped immobility in front of a loom. His back curved from lack of exercise and from bending to his loom for 14 hours a day. His hands were scarred and callused and his fingers were gnarled from the repetitive work of tying thousands of knots every day. His breathing was labored from the carpet dust that he inhaled and that affected his lungs.

    In 1992 Iqbal´s life changed dramatically. He and some other children stole away from their carpet factory to attend a freedom day celebration held by the Bonded Labour Liberation Front (BLLF). At the gathering they learned about their rights. Iqbal was moved to give an impromptu and eloquent speech about his sufferings which was printed in the local papers. Afterwards he refused to return to his owner. On his own initiative, he contacted a BLLF lawyer and obtained a letter of freedom which he presented to his former master.

    At the age of 10, he was freed from his bondage by Ehsan Ulla Khan, founder of the BLLF. The BLLF was founded in 1988 to fight against bonded and child labor in Pakistan, and it has successfully freed more than 30,000 children from bonded labor, and runs its own schools.
    Iqbal thrived and learned, and eventually joined the BLLF as an advocate for Pakistan´s 12 million bonded children laborers. Although sickly and small in stature, Iqbal was intelligent and he was brave. As a worker with the BLLF, he spoke to children about their rights under laws that outlawed bonded labor, and he freed as many as 3,000 children from bondage. As an international spokesman for the BLLF, he traveled to the United States and Europe calling for an end to bonded child labor. He also called for a boycott of Pakistani carpets, almost all of which are made by bonded children such as himself.

    Iqbal became an international hero and his calls for the boycott of Pakistani carpets began to have an effect. In 1992, carpet exports dropped for the first time in decades. Exports dropped in 1993 and 1994 as well, and Iqbal became an object of hatred for Pakistan´s carpet manufacturers – the «carpet mafia».

    On April 16, 1995, Iqbal was gunned down while riding his bicycle with a friend. His killers have not been caught, but it is well known that he was silenced by the «carpet mafia», whose profits he threatened. The Pakistani government which has continually ignored the United Nations Convention on Child Labor, has never enforced its own 1992 Bonded Labor Act, and has made no attempt to find Iqbal´s killers, must be held accountable as an accessory to his murder. Both the «carpet mafia» and the government of Pakistan have chosen profits before the health of poor bonded children, and before the life of a brave 13 year old boy as well.
    At the time of his death, he was enrolled in a school for freed bonded children, where he was a bright and energetic student. His dream for the future was to become a lawyer. That way, he reasoned, he could continue to fight for freedom on behalf of Pakistan´s seven and a half million illegally enslaved children.

    There are an estimated 20 million bonded laborers in Pakistan today; at least 7.5 million of these bonded laborers are children. More than 500,000 children, like Iqbal, work in the carpet industry. Because carpet factory owners, usually rich and influential men in their communities, are often under the protection of the local police, laws against enslaving children are seldom enforced.