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The Australian Tycoon Who Wants Pakistan to Free Its Slaves in Return for Coal

5 minute read

The Taliban insurgency afflicting Pakistan has shifted attention from the country’s myriad social woes, among them a brutal system of bonded labor that amounts to a modern-day form of slavery.

The Asian Development Bank estimates some 1.8 million people — typically lower-caste men, religious minorities, women, the disabled, Afghan refugees and children — work mostly in Pakistan’s brickmaking sector for little or even no pay. The conditions are appalling: barefoot workers break rocks, walk single file with yokes slung across shoulders and scale precarious planks to feed blasting-hot furnaces. Beatings and abuses are rife.

According to the Global Slavery Index 2013, Pakistan is the third worst place in the world for debt bondage and forced labor, after India and China. It says government efforts to address the problem have been “token at best and nonexistent at worst.”

Now the index’s patron, billionaire Australian mining magnate Andrew Forrest, has come up with a plan that he hopes will put an end to Pakistan’s “blood bricks.”

“Five years ago I didn’t know how bad the problem of modern slavery was. No one really knew,” Forrest told TIME from a meeting of the World Economic Forum in the Swiss resort town of Davos on Friday. “But I hope another five years from now, slavery will be considered abhorrent by every person in Pakistan, and certainly repugnant as a feasible solution to making bricks.”

Forrest is proposing to introduce to Pakistan a new technology called biomass gasification — an Australian invention that converts currently uneconomic lignite coal, which Pakistan has in abundance, into diesel fuel. If successful, the move could alleviate the crippling power outages that have stalled Pakistan’s textile and manufacturing industries. In turn, that could mean the creation of thousands of new jobs.

In exchange, Shahbaz Sharif, chief minister of the key province of Punjab — home to some 5,000 brick works — has pledged to introduce tough new laws outlawing child labor and imposing a minimum wage. He’s also pledged to free all bonded laborers within Punjab’s borders.

Forrest acknowledges that bringing slavery to an end in Pakistan will require a quantum shift in law and order. “If I can help Pakistan improve its energy supply, then that will strongly increase the competitiveness and prosperity of its industries,” says the former cattle wrangler who has transformed his company, Fortescue Metal Group, into the fourth largest producer of iron ore in the world in the space of eight years.

But such things are easier said than done. Pakistan’s courts are yet to secure a single conviction under existing forced-labor laws, despite them being in place for nearly 20 years. “I can’t stop them from using slaves,” Forrest admits. “That work will have to be done by their law-enforcement agencies. I personally think Pakistan can enforce its own laws, but in the past officers on the ground have not had sufficient incentive to do so.”

There is also limited awareness of the problem in the country itself. “Even the educated middle class in Pakistan have no idea about what’s going on,” says Shakira Hussein, a research fellow of Pakistani origin with the University of Melbourne’s National Centre of Excellence for Islamic Studies. “They drive along the highway and see all these smoke stacks [from brick kilns] rising from the fields, but never stop to ask themselves what’s going on there.”

Neither is there effective coordination between government agencies and NGOs, nor rehabilitation programs for people affected by bonded labor. Corruption is endemic, police are poorly trained and underpaid, and priorities lie elsewhere in a country where 49,000 have lost their lives to terrorism since 9/11.

“It will be uphill work because slavery in Pakistan is generational,” says Hussein. “When someone dies, the rest of the family has to cover their debt and a lot of kids are born into slavery. So while I’m glad to hear about initiatives to address this, I’m not overly optimistic.” She lists a series of antislavery measures dating back to former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s first term in office in the early the 1990s. None of the measures has delivered tangible results.

Then there’s the lack of headway Forrest has made in his other cause célèbre — ending the economic disadvantages of Australia’s long-suffering indigenous people. In 2008, Forrest co-launched the Australian Employment Covenant with former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to create 50,000 jobs for Indigenous Australians in two years. So far, 60,000 jobs have been pledged, but only 12,000 have been taken up by indigenous employees.

There is nothing wrong with thinking big, of course. “The global community is saying slavery is not O.K., and things have to change,” Forrest says. “Change has always needed a catalyst.” But the question is whether a new technology can provide that catalyst in a country struggling to contain a bloody and dangerous insurgency.

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