Never mind that serfdom is illegal in Pakistan. Many of this country's most powerful landowners have taken this cruel form of unpaid servitude for granted, generation after generation.
But the time-honored practice of keeping farm laborers in bondage and forcing them to work while they pay off debts has recently come under attack both at home and abroad.
In the last year, at least 2,000 farm workers - forced to live under miserable conditions without salary - were released in police raids from private farms. The practice of indentured servitude is prevalent mainly in the rural villages of southern Sindh Province and parts of Punjab - a province that is home to almost 60 percent of this country's 130 million people.
Large farms are not the only offenders. Other employers, like brick manufacturers, carpet factories, tanneries, and steelworks are just as guilty. Nobody knows the exact number of laborers in captivity, but human rights activists here say that they could total several hundred thousand.
The practice of keeping landless peasants in bondage is centuries old. It usually starts with the landlord extending petty loans to the victims. In return, entire families are forced to work - in some cases, generation after generation - to repay the original debt.
Landlords wield power
Almost four years after the passage of the government's Bonded Labor Act of 1992, which abolished indentured servitude, the problem is far from gone. The government has promised on several occasions to stop the practice, but large rural landowners, who wield enormous political power and are well represented politically, are unwilling to accept and blatantly ignore the change.
If bonded labor has a long history, it also has strong political backing in Pakistan. Many critics claim that almost two-thirds of the members of the federal parliament in Islamabad and the four provincial legislatures are landowners who would resist any plans that are seen as hostile toward their fellow landowners.
"Most of the members of parliament in the Sindh [provincial] assembly belong to the Zamindar [landowners] class and it is in their interest ... not to raise their voices against the bonded labor," says Ali Hasan, a journalist here who has written extensively on the subject.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), a privately funded nongovernmental organization, has drawn official attention to at least 40 private rural jails during the past year. The HRCP is one of Pakistan's foremost national organizations running a campaign against bonded labor. It claims that it has found at least 75 more such jails where no official action has been taken and that it is investigating reports that there may be a further 75.
"This is slavery in Pakistan," says Shakeel Pathan, the HRCP's most prominent activist on the issue. Mr. Pathan heads the commission's task force, which is collecting information and assisting the government and police to raid farms that hold bonded laborers.
"They [landowners] are the law in their areas so people don't dare touch them," Pathan says, referring to the immense power they wield. Landlords, he explains, are able to influence government officials and local police departments alike, and are therefore almost never charged or prosecuted on criminal offenses.
Human rights activists like Pathan are bitter that no high-profile prosecutions have taken place so far. Those prosecutions, he believes, would work as an important deterrent.
At the HRCP's office in Hyderabad, northeast of Karachi and Sindh Province's second-largest city, people come from far-flung areas daily, looking for Pathan's help. (See story below.) They bring with them harrowing accounts of ill treatment while in custody. Most of them are bonded laborers who have managed to escape. But many are eventually forced to head back because they have left family members behind.
Life of a bonded laborer
Those who have been liberated recount being kept in chains, being forced to work from dawn to dusk, and being fed twice a day with bread, water, and salty garlic paste called chatni. At night, their lives can be in danger either from the Zamindars, who may use some women as mistresses, or from guards, many of whom rape women or beat anyone who defies their orders.
Miraan, an illiterate woman from the low-class Kohli tribe says she was forced to be a mistress to a rich landowner for almost 25 years - ever since her family began working for him to repay a small loan. During that time, she claims that she was forced to undergo four abortions, while an infant daughter was killed because her owner considered it embarrassing to accept an illegitimate female child.
Her only surviving child is Haneef, who stands by Miraan at a small camp of former bonded laborers in Maatli, 28 miles outside Hyderabad. "Sometimes, I wake up in the night and think of all those babies," she recalls.
Miraan's story is not unusual and the cruelty of serfdom shows no sign of waning. But Pathan says the government of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto has at least paid lip service to the issue. He points to the creation of a special human rights department in 1994 that monitors human rights abuses and orders police raids in more egregious cases.
However, Pathan adds, these cases are stymied by the inertia of the country's provincial governments, local administrators, and police. Local officials are often under the influence of powerful landowners, many of whom maintain private armies.
Top officials at the federal level say they are determined to clamp down in spite of the political sensitivity of the issue.
"The landowners are powerful people and it isn't always possible to take action, but the government is still determined to do whatever it can since there's a great deal of international concern on the issue," says a senior government official requesting anonymity.
A trade issue
Western diplomats add that reports of bonded labor in the international media during the past year have forced Pakistan to deal with the issue more seriously.
"Pakistan has come under growing international pressure to get serious. There are threats [that their] exports may be affected if international antislavery groups demand a consumer boycott of the country's exports," says one Western diplomat in Islamabad.
For their part, released laborers like Miraan are just beginning to adjust to a life of freedom. Many live in small huts that look like they would fall apart during a moderate rainstorm. As for finding work, the process is complicated by the fact that most never learned to read, write, or count.