I was not born a slave,” Mirwali said. “I’ve been held hostage with two of my older brothers at the Hazrat-e Belal brick factory… for the past two years.”
Just 14 years old, Mirwali is one of around 6,000 minors forced into servitude at the brick factories of Sorkhrod district in the Nangarhar region of eastern Afghanistan.
An IWPR investigation has uncovered a consistent pattern where underage as well as adult workers are forced into bondage after their families borrow money from brick plant owners.
Mirwali’s story is typical of these modern slaves, most of whom are aged from eight to 17. He and his brothers have been forced to work at the brick plant in the village of Sultanpur to pay off 3,000 US dollars which the family borrowed two years ago from the factory owner, Ustad Mohammad Akram, to pay for their father’s heart surgery.
They have more than repaid the money with their hard labour, but there is no end in sight to their serfdom.
It is hard work – 250 times a day, Mirwali carries a ten-kilogram mould full of clay 20 metres to lay the brick out for drying. Working in 30-degree temperatures, his skin is scorched the same colour as the bricks, and his frame is hard and bony.
Their accommodation is basic, in clay-built rooms beside the brick plant, with snakes and scorpions a constant danger, as the heat of the kilns attracts them.
Ustad (“Master”) Akram pays the three brothers a rate of five dollars each for a ten-hour day, for which they make 1,000 unbaked bricks.
Hiring a labourer would cost him eight dollars a day, for eight rather than ten hours of work – a rate twice the amount he now pays. By that reckoning, he has recouped the original loan sum several times over simply by underpaying the brothers.
Ustad Akram told IWPR that the brothers each get paid 150 dollars a month, but he retains half of it to offset the loan. He says they are allowed to keep the remaining 75 dollars and use it to support their families.
To settle the loan in full, he said, “Mirwali and his brothers may work for me for another eight months.”
Mirwali described how the family, living in the village of Trili village in the neighbouring Chaparhar district, first got into difficulties.
“My father farmed the land of [other] villagers in return for 50 per cent of the profits. We didn’t have a good life, and I couldn’t go to school,” he said.
When his father Lal Mohammad fell ill, there was no money for treatment. Doctors in the main provincial city Jalalabad diagnosed a cardiac valve blockage and said the patient must travel to Pakistan as soon as possible to have an operation, or else he would die.
Doctors at the Al-Rahman hospital in Peshawar, Pakistan, required the 3,000-dollar fee to be deposited in the hospital’s bank account they would carry out before the operation.
With no chance of a loan from friends or relatives, Mirwali’s uncle Mohammad Yaqub secured the funds from Ustad Akram, an acquaintance . The condition was that the three brothers would work for the factory-owner until the money was paid off.
The family had no choice but to accept the deal. Lal Mohammad had the operation, but is still not well enough to resume working and contributing to the household.
Adults, too, are pressed into service at the brick factories when they take out loans they cannot repay. Often they work together with their entire families.
Lal Agha, 36, originally from the village of Niazi in the Laghman province, has spent the last eight months at the Chaharbagh Safa factory, trying to work off the 600,000 Pakistani rupees – equivalent to 6,500 dollars – he borrowed to buy treatment for one of his children.
“My nine year old daughter was suffering from cancer, so I borrowed money from friends and enemies alike to get her treatment. I took her to hospitals in Peshawar, Islamabad and even Karachi, but she did not recover and finally she died,” “When my daughter died, I owed people 600,000 rupees. The creditors would knock on my door morning and evening to ask for their money. I had no option but to accept 600,000 rupees from [factory owner] Shoaib Agha and enter into enslavement.”
Working together with his three young sons and two daughters, Lal Agha produces 2,000 bricks a day. He believes he might remain in servitude until the end of his life, trying to pay off the debt.
An IWPR reporter visited 59 of the 85 brick factories in Sorkhrod district in April and May 2012, and gathered numerous testimonies confirming the presence of underage workers held as security for loans and made to perform heavy labour. He spoke to 25 workers aged between eight and 17, and 49 of the owners.
His research resulted in a list of names and addresses of 6,000 children in bonded labour, plus 2,400 families living at brick plants because the adult breadwinner is working to pay off a loan.
The Afghan government is aware of the situation, although officials say they only have records of 1,300 families in Sorkhrod district with members working to pay off loans given by brick factor owners.
Wasel Nur Mohmand, Afghanistan’s deputy minister of labohr and social affairs, told IWPR that the “labour-for-loans” practice was customary everywhere in Afghanistan, and amounted to a personal contract between the factory owner and the family concerned.
Mohmand said that while the government did not view child labour at the factories as a form of slavery, it was a matter of concern.
“It is an obvious case of cruelty against children,” he said.
Article 13, point four of Afghanistan’s labour law prohibits the recruitment of under-18s for work that is hazardous or liable to lead to disability or underdevelopment. But there are no mechanisms for ensuring that the law is observed.
Hajji Gol Pacha, the head of the brick manufacturer’s association in Sorkhrod, told IWPR that there were 15,000 labourers including 6,000 children at the factories in the district. He said the local brick industry had taken off in the last ten years and had employed thousands of workers from various parts of Afghanistan as well as from Nangarhar itself. He added that hundreds of dormitory rooms had been built to house child workers so that they could get to the brick factories by dawn each day.
Factory owners deny that child labour constitutes a form of enslavement or a breach of children’s rights.
Ustad Akram, for example, said it was ethical and humane to give loans to the poor and vulnerable.
“What we do is both reward and profit,” he said.
Loans of between 1,000 to 5,000 dollars made all the difference to these families, he said.
“We have managed to get operations for dozens of patients with the loans we’ve given people. We have helped them mark dozens of events – both joyous and mournful – with dignity. We have also freed hundreds of Afghan labourers from Pakistani and Punjabi masters who held them hostage for years,” he said. “Now tell us whether we serve people or enslave them.”
Mirwali has now spent two years in effective slavery, even though he is still a beardless boy.
What upsets him more than all the hardship and misery of his life, he says, is seeing Samir, a boy of his own age, when they both attend evening prayers at the mosque in Sultanpur. Samir’s father, a wealthy car dealer in Jalalabad city, has enrolled him at the prestigious Afghan-Turkish High School – something Mirwali can only dream of.
“When Samir enters the mosque, I say to myself, ‘God – what would happen if You made us rich too, so that I could go to school and study in style as others do?” he said.
Sayed Samiullah Sayidi is an IWPR-trained journalist in Jalalabad, Afghanistan.
This report was produced as part of the Afghan Critical Mass Media Reporting in Uruzgan and Nangarhar project, and is also published on the Afghan Centre for Investigative Journalism website which IWPR has set up locally.