The historical figure of importance, Iqbal Masih was a young Pakistani boy who was f*orced into bonded labor at age four. After being freed at age ten, Iqbal became an activist ag*ainst bonded child labor. He became a martyr for his cause when he was m*urdered at age 12.
Overview of Iqbal Masih
He was born in Muridke, a small village in Pakistan that is not far from Lahore. Saif Masih, Iqbal’s father, left the family soon after he was born. Inayat, Iqbal’s mother, worked as a housecleaner but had a hard time making enough money to feed all of her kids with the little she made.
Iqbal played in the fields near his two-room house because he was too young to understand what was going on with his family. His big sisters took care of him while his mom was at work. When he was only four years old, his life changed in a big way.
It was 1986, and Iqbal’s older brother was getting married. The family needed money to pay for a party. In Pakistan, the only way for a very poor family to borrow money is to ask a local boss. These employers are experts at this type of trade, in which they lend money to a family in exchange for the slave labor of a young child.
A man who owned a carpet-weaving business gave Iqbal’s family 600 rupees, which is (about $12), to pay for the wedding. However, Iqbal had to work as a carpet weaver until the debt was paid off. Iqbal’s family sold him into servitude without asking him or consulting him first.
Workers Fighting for Survival
This system of peshgi (loans) is inherently inequitable; the employer has all the power. Iqbal was required to work an entire year without wages in order to learn the skills of a carpet weaver. During and after his apprenticeship, the cost of the food he ate and the tools he used were all added to the original loan. When and if he made mistakes, he was often fined, which also added to the loan.
On top of these fees, the employer added interest to the loan, making it bigger and bigger. It took years for Iqbal’s family to borrow more money from the employer. This added to the amount of debt Iqbal had to pay off. The boss kept track of how much the loan was. It was common for employers to lie about the total, which meant the kids would be slaves for life. The loan had grown to 13,000 rupees, which is about $260, by the time Iqbal was ten years old.
Horrendous conditions characterized Iqbal’s working environment. To tie millions of knots into carpets, Iqbal and the other bonded children were obligated to squat on a wooden bench and bend forward. The children were obligated to adhere to a predetermined pattern by meticulously selecting each thread and tying each knot. Children were prohibited from communicating with one another. A guard might strike the children if they began to daydream, or they might injure themselves with the sharp implements they used to cut the thread.
Iqbal worked at least fourteen hours per day, six days per week. To safeguard the wool’s quality, the windows were incapable of being opened, resulting in an oppressively hot environment in which he labored. A mere two light bulbs were suspended above the young children.
Children were punished in the following situations: retaliation, flight, homesickness, and physical illness. As punishment, they were subjected to severe beatings, prolonged periods of isolation in a dark closet, being chained to their loom, and being hung upside down. Iqbal committed these transgressions frequently and was punished severely. In recognition of his efforts, Iqbal was remunerated sixty rupees (approximately twenty cents) the day following the conclusion of his apprenticeship.
The Bonded Labor Liberation Front
Iqbal, who had been a carpet weaver for six years, acquired knowledge of a Bonded Labor Liberation Front (BLLF) gathering one day. The BLLF was dedicated to assisting children in similar circumstances as himself. Iqbal slithered away from work in order to attend the meeting. Iqbal learned at the meeting that peshgi was prohibited by the Pakistani government in 1992. Furthermore, all outstanding loans were canceled by the government towards these employers.
Awakened, Iqbal was certain he desired his freedom. The president of the BLLF, Eshan Ullah Khan, assisted him in obtaining the necessary documentation to convince his employer that he was entitled to his release. Not satisfied with achieving his own freedom, Iqbal exerted effort to liberate his fellow laborers as well.
Iqbal was discharged and enrolled in a BLLF school in Lahore. Iqbal diligently pursued knowledge, accomplishing the equivalent of four years of labor in only two. Iqbal participated in meetings and demonstrations that opposed the use of indentured labor of minors, where his innate leadership abilities become progressively more evident. In the past, he assumed the identity of a factory worker in order to interrogate the children regarding their working conditions. Despite the perilous nature of this expedition, the intelligence he amassed was instrumental in shutting down the factory and liberating hundreds of children.
After BLLF meetings, Iqbal proceeded to address international journalists and activists. He recounted his personal experiences as a child laborer in bonds. Many people paid attention to him because he spoke with such conviction and was not intimidated by large crowds.
Iqbal was both physically and mentally affected by the six years he spent as a bond child. The most conspicuous characteristic of Iqbal was his minuscule stature, which was roughly half of what he ought to have been at his age. He was less than four feet tall and weighed a meager sixty pounds at the age of ten. A physician diagnosed his halted physical development as “psychological dwarfism.” Iqbal additionally endured arthritis, kidney issues, a curved spine, and bronchial infections. Many claim that he walked with a shuffled gait due to discomfort.
Iqbal’s employment as a carpet weaver constituted, in numerous respects, his maturation. However, he was in fact not an adult. While he did not lose his youth, he did lose his childhood. Iqbal, who was in the United States to receive the Reebok Human Rights Award, particularly enjoyed Bugs Bunny and other animated films. Occasionally, he also had the opportunity to play computer games while in the United States.
A Life Cut Short
Iqbal’s growing popularity and influence caused him to receive numerous death threats. Focused on helping other children become free, Iqbal ignored the letters.
On Sunday, April 16, 1995, Iqbal spent the day visiting his family for Easter. After spending some time with his mother and siblings, he headed over to visit his uncle. Meeting up with two of his cousins, the three boys rode a bike to his uncle’s field to bring his uncle some dinner. On the way, the boys stumbled upon someone who s*hot at them with a s*hotgun. Iqbal died immediately. One of his cousins was sh*ot in the arm; the other wasn’t hit.
How and why Iqbal was k*illed remains a mystery. The original story was that the boys stumbled upon a local farmer who was in a compromising position with a neighbor’s donkey. Frightened and perhaps high on drugs, the man s*hot at the boys, not intending to specifically k*ill Iqbal. Most people do not believe this story. Rather, they believe that leaders of the carpet industry disliked the influence Iqbal was having and ordered him murd*ered. As of yet, there is no proof that this was the case.
On April 17, 1995, Iqbal was buried. There were approximately 800 mourners in attendance.
*The problem of bonded child labor continues today. Millions of children, especially in Pakistan and India, work in factories to make carpets, mud bricks, beedis (cigarettes), jewelry, and clothing, all with similar horrific conditions as Iqbal experienced.