ASIA/PAKISTAN - Freeing "modern slaves" from their chains: the mission of a parish priest in Punjab

Tuesday, 30 May 2023 child labor   work   human dignity   freedom   human rights  


by Paolo Affatato
Faisalabad (Agenzia Fides) - Five Christian families are trapped in the web of "slave labour" in the clay factories scattered in the countryside of Pakistani Punjab. Each of them includes young people, old people, children. There is Yaqoob Masih's family alongside those of Altaf Gill, Shafiq Bashir, Adnan Masih, Liaquat Barqat. They are among the many families who have been imprisoned due to the practice of "peshgi", an advance on salary that the worker receives from his employer, for a need of his own, which constitutes a debt. That debt accumulates and, in return for interest, creates a system of perennial dependency, which becomes an accepted and legalized form of modern slavery. The phenomenon is widespread in Pakistan, a country that ranks sixth in the index compiled by 'Global Slavery', which counted 2.3 million slaves in the country, 1.13% of the entire Pakistani population.
Trying to free these slaves is among the commitments of Father Emmanuel Parvez, 72-year-old parish priest in Pansara, a town in the diocese of Faisalabad. Travelling around the countryside of his parish - which includes as many as 40 rural villages - Father Emmanuel constantly encounters stories of suffering like those of these families who have no one to turn to and are condemned to life. Especially in the Punjab region, the phenomenon of masses of destitute people kept to work, in slavery-like conditions, in factories that extract clay from the subsoil, knead bricks, and bake them in kilns, for the benefit of the construction industry, is well known. Entire families find themselves, because of the need to pay off the debts they have contracted, tied to landowners, 'masters' who manage the workforce according to the criteria of maximum exploitation and keep the workers - including children, women and the elderly - in inhuman conditions.
The Christians of Punjab, often belonging to the poorest segments of the population and relegated to the last ranks of the ancient caste system - typical of the social stratification of the subcontinent - end up being among the privileged victims of a mechanism that often also keeps them segregated. The heavy debt to be repaid imposes, in fact, on all members of the family, without any distinction of age, sex or health condition, exhausting working days for miserable wages. This is a condition far removed from any elementary right, while people are considered as "commodities" or in a purely instrumental way, deprived of any dignity.
The parish priest explains to Fides: "Christians and Hindus, who belong to the poorest segments of the Pakistani population, are often victims of the system: they are 'debt slaves' a mechanism that condemns them to abuse, harassment, mistreatment, to an entire existence at the mercy of unscrupulous masters. It all starts with a loan or an advance from employers. They ask for it because they need medical care, as health care in Pakistan is all paid for by private individuals. Or perhaps to finance a daughter's wedding party," observes the parish priest. "To repay the amount owed requires years of work without rights, without certainty, without pay, forced into dilapidated housing. In many cases, the worker is unable to repay the debt, which is not extinguished with his death but passed on to subsequent generations, creating generations of slaves".
The brick industry is thriving in Pakistan and accounts for about 3% of the national GDP. According to estimates by the International Labor Organization, there are between 8,000 and 10,000 brick kilns throughout the country and there are about 1.5 million workers in the industry. In the province of Punjab alone, 5 thousand furnaces are active, known as the "kingdom of forced labour", a system governed by an inflexible law. The priest noted the presence of more than eighty kilns that extract clay and make bricks in the vast territory of his parish. And, having learned of stories of slave families, he set in motion a work "to break the chains of slavery, which can no longer be tolerated, and to restore dignity and freedom to these families oppressed by a yoke that conditions their lives forever".
Father Parvez goes to the owners of the kilns and inquires about the extent of the contracted debt. Then, knocking on the doors of donors, especially in Europe and the USA, he tries to put together the sum necessary for the ransom of the slaves (on average between 500 and a thousand euros for each family). The owner, having received the money, signs the deed of release and repayment of the debt. Thus Father Parvez has already freed 40 Christian families, receiving immense gratitude. He also provided them with a modest home, building a small village called "Christ the King Colony", built in the Catholic diocese of Faisalabad, in Pakistan. The village will welcome three hundred families of Christian peasants and among them there are those who have "resurrected to a new life", entire families freed from "slave labour". The liberated families manage to send their children to school, regain freedom and dignity, are accompanied to look for other types of work, in crafts or agriculture. It is for them a new life, simple, but happy.
A recent report by the "Walk Free" foundation, an organization that monitors the phenomenon of modern slavery internationally, estimates that 50 million people live in "modern slavery" in the world. "Modern slavery permeates every aspect of our society," said Walk Free editor Grace Forrest. "It is woven into our clothes, it lights up our electronic devices and it seasons our food", recalling that many materials and consumer objects in the globalized society are made with labor exploitation, even with child labour. This phenomenon disrupts education and employment, generates extreme poverty and forced migration which, in a vicious circle, "feeds all forms of modern slavery," says the report. In 2015, one of the goals of the United Nations was to an end to modern slavery, forced labor and human trafficking by 2030: according to “Walk Free” this goal is still far from being achieved.
In this setting, the work of a parish priest is a drop in the ocean. But it is also that seed that can germinate, recalling the historical work of the Mercedarian fathers, the religious belonging to the Order founded in 1218 in Barcelona by s. Pietro Nolasco with the help of James I king of Aragon, with the aim of freeing the Christian prisoners who fell into the power of the "Moors". In a recent essay entitled "Merchants of souls", the scholar Maria Bianca Graziosi traces the glorious history of the mercedaries, so called in honor of Our Lady of Mercy. Pietro Nolasco, a merchant and wealthy man, at a certain point in his life realizes the suffering of men enslaved. Impressed, he not only redeemed a large number of slaves with the money he earned, but put his own life at risk and found a religious order, the "mercedaries", who - in case the ransom money did not arrive in time or was not enough - they put their lives at stake, paying the sum demanded by the Moors with their own bodies. That of Pietro Nolasco (1180-1265) became a "redemptive mission", as the mercedaries profess, as a fourth vow, that of "offering their lives in exchange for prisoners in danger of losing their lives and their faith".
Getting involved, committing one's resources and energies, trusting in the help of Providence and with the sole purpose of putting the Gospel into practice: with this spirit, Father Emmanuel Parvez, a 70-year-old Pakistani parish priest, visits the villages of his immense parish to look for souls to free from the torturers. (PA) (Agenzia Fides, 30/5/2023)