Monday, June 14, 2010

B.L.L.F. & Iqbal Masih

In rural Pakistan, the parents of Iqbal Masih sold him into bondage to a carpet manufacturer for $200, because they could not take care of him. He was four years old. For 6 years Iqbal was forced to squat, often chained, before a carpet loom. He was not fed well, and as a result, his growth was stunted. His back curved from lack of exercise and from bending to his loom for 14 hours a day. His hands were scarred and callused and his fingers were gnarled from the repetitive work of tying thousands of knots every day. His breathing was labored from the carpet dust that he inhaled and that affected his lungs.

For six years, Iqbal squatted, and knotted intricate designs in carpets -- a virtual slave. But, at the age of 10, he was freed from his bondage by Ehsan Ulla Khan, founder of the Bonded Labor Liberation Front (BLLF). (The BLLF was founded in 1988 to fight against bonded and child labor in Pakistan, has successfully freed more than 30,000 children from bonded labor, and runs its own schools.)

Iqbal thrived and learned, and eventually joined the BLLF as an advocate for Pakistan's 12 million bonded children laborers. Although sickly and small in stature, Iqbal was intelligent and he was brave. As a worker with the BLLF, he spoke to children about their rights under laws that outlawed bonded labor, and he freed as many as 3,000 children from bondage. As an international spokesman for the BLLF, he traveled to the United States and Europe calling for an end to bonded child labor. He also called for a boycott of Pakistani carpets, almost all of which are made by bonded children such as himself.

Iqbal became an international hero and his calls for the boycott of Pakistani carpets began to have an effect. In 1992, carpet exports dropped for the first time in decades. Exports dropped in 1993 and 1994 as well, and Iqbal became an object of hatred for Pakistan's carpet manufacturers - the "carpet mafia".

On April 16, 1995, Iqbal was gunned down while riding his bicycle with a friend. His killers have not been caught, but it is well known that he was silenced by the "carpet mafia", whose profits he threatened. The Pakistani government which has continually ignored the United Nations Convention on Child Labor, has never enforced its own 1992 Bonded Labor Act, and has made no attempt to find Iqbal's killers, must be held accountable as an accessory to his murder. Both the "carpet mafia" and the government of Pakistan have chosen profits before the health of poor bonded children, and before the life of a brave 13 year old boy as well.

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