Anjum Raza Mattu is the co-founder and president of the Insan Dost Association (IDA) that combats modern slavery and strives to create in Pakistan a society free from bonded labor. The organization was formally registered only in 2002, but its origins go back to 1986, when a team of students formed the Insan Dost Group, which literally means “a friend of humanity.”
According to the Global Slavery Index, Pakistan is among the 10 countries with the highest prevalence of modern slavery in the world, with an estimated figure of 3.7 million slaves in a population of 220 million. Bonded labor is one of the most commonly encountered forms of modern slavery, spread especially widely among the brick kilns workers (a kiln is a special oven for firing objects made of clay). Poor families get trapped in slavery after applying for a loan from an affluent person. It often takes a generation or more to repay the loans with interest and until then, families remain a “property” of the moneylender. Unfortunately, children are not excluded from this vicious cycle. The Insan Dost Association estimates that 1.1 million children are subjected to bonded labor in the brick kiln industry in Pakistan, and Anjum Raza Mattu has dedicated his life to fighting for their rights and the rights of their parents.
In 1986, when Mr. Anjum was a student working for the State Life Insurance Company, he and his co-workers decided to try their luck in selling insurance to the workers of the nearby brick kiln. It was then when he discovered the whole scale of their miserable reality: “When we suggested to the kiln workers that they get insurance, they told us that they were living in abject poverty, with no crockery, with torn clothes, huge debts and low wages. They began to weep bitterly before us and requested to release them from the hardships and loans of the kiln owner.”
These unfortunate families told the insurance workers how they had spent almost their whole life working at the kiln to pay back the debts that never seemed to diminish. “They were deprived of their fundamental rights of freedom of movement, choice of job, and access to basic social services, and were subjected to extreme forms of physical, mental and sexual abuse. My co-workers and I felt very depressed, having heard about their plight,” recalls Anjum Raza Mattu.
Being determined to fight for the rights of those people, the students formed the Insan Dost Group. They organized a procession to highlight the poor living conditions of the kiln workers and demand improvements, including the wage increase. To their surprise, they succeeded. The kiln owner announced an increase of 10 Indian rupees per 1000 bricks. That was a breakthrough covered by a local newspaper, and this initial success encouraged the Insan Dost Group to begin operating informally and raising essential issues.
Day by day, Insan Dost Group became more active and prominent in the field. People started to turn to them seeking protection for themselves and for their families, especially for children. Statistics show that more than 22.8 million children are out-of-school in Pakistan, mainly from poor families with the lowest incomes. According to other data, an estimated 12 million children have to work and many among them are exposed to the bonded labor. “There is a close link between poverty, illiteracy, child labor and bonded labor. We are specifically focusing on providing non-formal education to children, which will help to liberate them from the shackles of the brick kiln owners,” says the co-founder of the Insan Dost.
In many cases, it takes a huge effort to influence the government agencies intended to protect the citizens’ rights. Anjum Raza Mattu recalls the case of 16-year-old Nasreen who used to work with her parents at a kiln. Once, when her mother and father went to a funeral, the kiln owner and his brother took advantage of their absence by forcibly taking Nasreen to their own tent and raping her. The next day, Nasreen’s parents came to the Insan Dost Association for legal aid. “We went to the police station and tried to file an FIR (First investigation Report) against the kiln owner and his brother, but the police refused to listen to us. The same day, we organized a rally against the kiln owner and his brother and the police to draw attention to this injustice. When the District Police Officer learnt about our rally, he came to us for negotiations. After that, the case was immediately registered, and the kiln owner and his brother were arrested.”
There are many success stories to be found in Insan Dost Association’s records, but also a lot of sad ones. Over the years of selfless work, Anjum Raza Mattu and the IDA have formed 126 unions of kiln workers, all headed by women. “They act with greater determination and persistence compared to men. Also, kiln owners tend to beat up male union members, but they are afraid to do the same with women union members because of cultural reasons and the fear of a backlash,” explains Mr. Anjum.
The Insan Dost Association has played a leading role in advocating for the establishment of the District Vigilance Committees (DVCs) to promote the rights of bonded laborers. “Perhaps IDA’s greatest success has been manifested in harnessing the support of progressive kiln owners, eight of whom waived off all the debts due to them from their workers; a number of these owners are members of various committees working against bonded labor, including DVCs,” Anjum Raza Mattu says. He clarifies that this is also the result of their different trainings, including ones for the kiln owners. “Our organization also has a good support of lawyers who provide legal aid to bonded laborers without a fee or at a nominal fee. A significant percentage of the bonded laborers receiving support from IDA, such as the provision of national identity cards, voter registration and school admission for children, are Christians, highly discriminated against in Pakistani society and treated almost like untouchables.”
With fame and success came threats and persecution, mostly from the kiln owners’ side. Anjum Raza Mattu has been to jail twice, spending 6 and 3 months on false accusations instigated by kiln owners. Even so, he never deviated from the path he has chosen: “Probably the most difficult period of my life was when I was accused of blasphemy by the kiln owners of the Pakpattan district (Punjab province, Pakistan). When they found out about my Christian background, they filed a blasphemy charge against me, and I had to go into hiding, together with my family and staff members, due to death threats. They claimed I had said bad things about the Holy Prophet. My case became high-profile, with the Chief Justice taking notice, and a 3-member committee of Human Rights Commission of Pakistan conducted a fact-finding mission and declared the case to be false. Even the owners admitted that the blasphemy charge was false.”
Now the threats have diminished, but not completely disappeared. In any case, Anjum Raza Mattu and his organization tend to look forward, not back, thinking of the past only to list their achievements. Thanks to their efforts, 75,000 bonded kiln workers have been liberated, over 28,000 of them children. The organization helped them enroll into government and private schools near the brick kilns and provided the children with uniforms and school bags.
For their significant impact in the fight to eradicate modern slavery in Pakistan, the Insan Dost Association has been awarded the 2020 Stop Slavery Hero Award (United Kingdom), 2013 International Bremen Peace Award (Germany) and 2010 Women Peace Power Foundation Award (USA).