In the mid 1990’s, a bright young youth made a global impact on Child Slavery. Iqbal Masih’s life was cut short just shy of 13 years but his powerful and eloquent speeches encouraged thousands of bonded laborers and child slaves to follow his example. He brought awareness and promoted education so that others could stand up for their rights and end the injustice in sweat shops around the world.
In 1983, Iqbal Masih was born in the poor community of Maridke outside of Lahore, Pakistan. His family was financially burdened, and his father Saif Masih decided to leave when Iqbal was young. When he was 4 years old, Iqbal’s mother Inayat needed funds to pay for his older brother’s wedding. Because the family was already in debt, she took out a loan in Iqbal’s name from a local businessman. However, when their debt went unpaid for two years she was forced to “loan” Iqbal as a laborer to pay off the debt.
Iqbal became one of the many child bonded laborers at the carpet factory. Despite working 14 hour days six days a week, Iqbal never earned enough money to pay off the debt, the cost of his “apprenticeship”, his tools, his food, fines for his mistakes or the rising interest. Though considered “debt bonded” he was really like millions of other children who were enslaved to their employers without hope of earning their freedom. Bonded labor, child labor and slave labor were all outlawed in Pakistan. However, it ran rampant due to a corrupt government and a police force that was living off the bribes of local business men.
“Children should have pens in their hands not tools” – Iqbal Masih
When Iqbal was 10 years old he made up his mind to escape. He had endured hot, cramped conditions, air filled with wool debris and countless whippings, beatings and cuttings whenever his work slowed. Though stunted by malnutrition and weakened by lack of exercise, Iqbal and a few of his friends escaped. He ran to the local police and explained how the employer was beating the children and keeping them as slaves. Unfortunately, the police officer was more willing to receive the “finder’s fee” for escaped slaves and returned Iqbal to Arshad, Iqbal’s owner. At the direction of the police officer, Iqbal was chained to the carpet machine and Arshad forced him back to work with a combination of physical abuse and starvation.
At the age of 12, Iqbal found away to attend a freedom day celebration held by the Brick Layer Unions. There, Iqbal heard about his rights as a laborer and that debt slavery was outlawed a few years before. In addition to the law against slavery, the government had cancelled all debts with businesses so they could in turn free those in debted to them. However, very few businesses actually released their slaves. When others were asked to speak before the crowd Iqbal volunteered. After hearing Iqbal’s story, one of the union leaders named Ehsan Ullah Khan organized an effort to free Iqbal from bondage. After much convincing about the illegality of his factory, Arshad freed Iqbal and some of the other child slaves.
The 12 year old Iqbal became a prominent leader of the anti-slave movement in Pakistan. He attended the Bonded Labour Liberation Front (BLLF) School for former child slaves and quickly completed a four year education in only two years. As his understanding of labor laws and human rights grew, he began using his energetic personality to speak on behalf of the enslaved workers. He would sneak into factories and begin asking the children about their experiences and if they were slaves. Even though this was an incredibly risky job, his malnourished body and stunted growth made him appear to be only around six years old so he was rarely perceived as a threat.
The BLLF sent him to speak at businesses and demonstrations all over Pakistan where bonded slavery was known to exist. With his powerful personality he educated the slave laborers and encouraged them to escape. Despite death threats from the organized business mafias that dominated the communities, Iqbal continued to speak against their practices with confidence and eloquence. It is estimated that over 3,000 Pakistani Children escaped their owners after visiting rallies, hearing speeches and attending meetings put on by the BLLF that year.
Because of his powerful story, Iqbal Masih began visiting other countries, raising awareness of child slaves and advocating for their freedom. Everywhere he went he inspired others (especially children) to become involved in the mission to end child slavery.
“I would like to do what Abraham Lincoln did… I would like to do it in Pakistan” -Iqbal Masih
After a visit to speak in the United States in December of 1994, Iqbal returned home to Pakistan. He would spend his last few months of life attending school in hopes of becoming a lawyer to fight on behalf of bonded laborers.
On Palm Sunday, (the 16th of April, 1995) Iqbal was assassinated after being shot in the back with a 12 gauge shotgun. He was riding home on a bicycle with some friends after attending mass earlier in the day.
The official police report claims that it was an accidental firing by a local farmer named Ashraf Hero. They claimed he confessed to the accident after hours of being tortured. Because Iqbal was a prominent enemy of the local Carpet Manufacturer Mafia, The Pakistani Human Rights Commission looked into the murder but quickly agreed with the police story. Despite the official report, most everyone believes that Iqbal Masih was assassinated by an agent of the Carpet Manufacturer Mafia who already held influence over the police and that Ashraf Hero was framed for the murder.
Iqbal Masih is our hero because he took courageous action on behalf of child slaves and bonded laborers in Pakistan and around the world. Despite his short life, his passionate and powerful message encouraged thousands to seek freedom and inspired many more around the world to join in his efforts. There are still an estimated 75,000 slaves in Pakistan Today. One organization, Free the Children was started by a Canadian youth named Craig Kielburger who had heard about Iqbal’s story and wanted to help make a difference.