This week, Pakistan's National Assembly discussed the prevalence of child labour in the country. And not before time, as the scale of the problem is huge. It is estimated that child labourers now exceed 12million in Pakistan. Even worse, these children are often exposed to physical violence, long working hours and dangerous working conditions. Just a few days ago a ten-year-old boy allegedly had his hand crushed by his brick factory owner boss for refusing to work. Just one shocking story emerging from Pakistan's brick kilns - an industry many across the UK and globally would not have even heard of.
Up to 1.7million children from the age of five are working in illegal brick factories in Pakistan and are denied their basic right to a childhood, to an education and to play. Forced into labour by severe poverty, children work up to 14 hours a day with scarce food, no sanitation and little pay. And with nearly a quarter of Pakistan's population living below the poverty line, many adult workers are forced to work in unsafe conditions too, with their most basic rights denied.
Seven-year-old Muhammad Kashif is just one of those children. He has no option but to work. It is a choice between work or starvation. Working six days a week, from first light to midnight, his hands repeatedly delve into the furnace that bakes the bricks. One colleague from ActionAid in Pakistan said that when you walk into the kilns it feels like the "flesh is melting from your bones". Yet for children like Muhammad, it is all in a day's work. The more bricks he makes, the more food his family can afford to buy that night.
With no breaks, no water and no hygiene, symptoms like diarrhoea, and even diseases such as cholera, are rife among workers. The conditions are literally life-threatening, more reminiscent of a Victorian workhouse than a 21st Century factory. But then it gets even more complicated: to save paying social security, kiln owners don't register the workers and pay staff in cash. With no official registration, these workers do not even exist. So what does this mean? Well here's the maths: Terrible working conditions + no social security = no healthcare, no access to a government pension and no legal aid.
Muhammad and his mother are aware of the situation, but they have to choose between their civil liberties and food. They work day-in, day-out and take home on average the equivalent of £3 a day, which, after essential expenses such as rent, may be just enough for one meal. Paid according to the number of bricks made, they are often underpaid by their bosses who can and often do miscount the bricks they make. And for Muhammad and his peers this is a job for life. Without any education - even the ability to read or write - they cannot move into other work. They are trapped and unable to break the bonds of poverty.
My colleagues in Pakistan have been working hard to make drastic changes in the brick kiln industry and ensure that children like Muhammad can build a better future. Working in 60 kilns across the country, they have collaborated with owners to introduce a minimum wage, helped to create conditions that are more befitting to basic rights (such as clean water and rest breaks) as well as setting up workers' associations so that brick industry workers can continue to fight for their rights. Additionally, child education centres have been established near the kilns and provide an accelerated version of the national curriculum. The aim is to end child labour and enable children to enter mainstream education. Furthermore, ActionAid has been working to ensure that kiln owners adhere to International Labour Organisation (ILO) conventions on child labour, which the Pakistani Government has ratified, by organising visits for key agencies and by awareness-raising.
ActionAid focuses on combatting the root causes of poverty, altering for the better the lives of those men, women and children who need to work in desperate conditions to ensure their basic survival. By providing help accessing social security, basic labour rights and education, workers will not just be able to put bread on the table, but join the formal economy, have rights and be heard.
Our hope is that the 60 brick kilns we are working with can become models for the industry and demonstrate that it is possible to run kilns that respect workers' rights. The aim is that Muhammad's children can have a formal education and not have to work until adulthood. In the meantime, let us hope that Pakistan's legislators do more than just discuss what we know is a growing problem in Pakistan, and that employers take note that a better way is possible.
Click here to find out how you can help to end child labour in Pakistan's brick kilns