Saddening colors of labour unfold on May Day


As May 1, the International Labour Day, saw the world expressing solidarity with the labourers, there are some in this densely-populated financial hub of Pakistan who have to worry about much more than making both ends meet.
The ‘dilemma of identity’ can be the most appropriate word we can use while telling the story of millions of Afghan refugees, Christian minority and the internally displaced persons.
These under-privileged segments of our class-based society, willy-nilly, have to do dirty jobs to earn livelihood for their poor dependents living, in most cases, far away from their near and dear ones. Putting their hands in filthy garbage and stinky gutters is the lifestyle they hatefully have to adopt for reasons ranging from the damaging side-effects of the US-led global war on terror to the lack of education.
“Kuchray Wala” (trash collector) and “Bhungy” (sweeper) are the titles we generally assign to such poor labourers who could not have the luxury to stretch back at home even on May Day, an international public holiday.
To Basheer Mohammad, a 13-year-old Afghan refugee who lives at a garbage dump in impoverished Bhutta Village of Keamari Town with his elderly father and younger brother, words like Labor Day or Child Labour mean nothing.
“I don’t go to school now,” said the kid when this reporter spotted him filling his half-full gunny bag with recyclable trash at the garbage dump in the scorching sunlight of Wednesday afternoon.
Dressed untidily, the Afghan boy was looking for trash preferably made of plastic, iron or paper that, he said, was saleable at a price ranging from Rs 6 to 354 per kilogram. Whereas Basher was reluctant to spare some time for an uncalled for interview, however, his father, Mohammad Hussain, working nearby, had a lot to share his plight with Pakistan Today.
“I have to leave my family back in Afghanistan and shift to an Afghan refugee camp in Sohrab Goth when half and a year back a fight between Taliban and America reduced my only vehicle to ashes,” he said. Mohammad hails from Jowzjan, one of 34 provinces of Afghanistan, which had been a hotspot of war on terror in the war-ravaged country.
Besides Basheer, the 60-year-old bearded man fathers Ali Mohammad, 15, Raj Mohammad, 10, Akhtar Mohammad, 7, Khan Mohammad, 4 and 11-year-old Shatireena who, in Afghanistan, go to a seminary to get Islamic education. His wife, Ameena, is a house wife.
“All my children including Basher used to go to school until I got my vehicle burnt that left me heavily indebted (Rs 4 lac). So, I had to migrate here in search of livelihood,” said Mohammad who has to pay Rs 40,000 under a one-year contract he has entered into with one of his countrymen (Afghan) for collecting garbage from the area.
The 15-year-old Ali too, he said, was associated with the dirty job he was compelled to do.
What, however, perturbs the troubled family the most is the question of their identity. “Police every now and then stop us and ask for the identity cards that have expired,” said the old man. “Just a couple of days back the police stopped our vehicle and took Rs 200 from each of us saying you don’t have identity cards,” recalled Basheer.
Why don’t you have the identity cards? “Because the new ‘Bacha’ (king) would decide whether we should be issued new ID cards or sent back to Afghanistan,” replied Mohammad. “We are waiting for the election results now,” said the brilliant child labour.
The poor garbage collectors said thousands of Afghans living in a mohajir camp near Sohrab Goth were facing the same fate. According to official figures up to 2005, some 2.7 million homeless Afghans were living in Pakistan of which, the UNHCR data suggests, only 1.7 million were registered.
According to Basher, many of his countrymen were affiliated with relatively profitable garbage business in Machar Colony, Teen Hatti, Sohrab Goth, Keamari, Shershah, Sadder other impoverished city neighborhoods.
“Who would willingly love to live far away from his family? I would go back to my country when the security situation has improved,” said Mohammad, who is very appreciative of Pakistan, he described as ‘Islamic country’.
Sarfaraz David, a Christian employee of Karachi Water and Sewerage Board, who must clean private gutters in part-time to make sustenance for his 8-member family, was another neglected labour seen walking fast on the I.I Chundrigar Road near Jang Press Building with a thin bamboo and long iron bar in his hand.
“If we take an off what would we eat, sir! You know, inflation is so backbreaking that we can’t be choosy in terms of work,” replied 35-year-old David, who lives with his parents, spouse, three children and a youngling brother in a rented house of Esa Nagri.
Drawing only Rs 8,000 from KWSB, David has to clean gutters part-time to support his family. Even this part-time job, as he said, does not make a difference. “Some give me Rs 50 or Rs 100 maximum,” said David, whose father, Mr David, had migrated to Karachi from Faisalabad, he could not recall when.
His brother also was working in a private firm and earning Rs 7,000 a month.
Besides poverty, David also has to fight with the contemptuous behaviour of the people around. “People despise us as Bhungy (sweeper) but all we can do is to get sad,” he was visibly shocked. Another factor he cited as haunting his fraternity was a religious bigot.
“We are living here for decades but without having a clear idea whether or not we are Pakistanis,” said the poor labourer adding, “There are people who embrace us but there are some who hate us.”
A rough estimate shows that each of the Christian and Hindu minorities constituted 208 million or 1.6 percent of Pakistan’s total population back in 2005.
Asked if he was OK with his dirty job, David replied in negative: “Who would like to dip his hands in filthy stinky sewage water if not compelled”. Why this job only? “Because I am uneducated and then the dividend here is relatively higher than other private jobs,” he replied.
Abdullah, 25, is another hard working labour from Quetta, the federal capital of Balochistan province, who was seen at work on the May Day. He has his own issues pertaining to the law and order and the resultant downing rates of recyclable garbage he collects from dawn to dusk in various localities of this violence-hit metropolis.
“The violence in this city is really haunting us both in terms of business and protection,” said the youngling trash collector who lives in Gulshan-e-Sikandar Ababd area of Keamari Town.
Holding a gunny bag half-full of different refuses, Abdullah said at least four of his relatives had fallen prey to incidents of ethnic violence in the city. “I still remember how 8-year-old Mohammad was killed in crossfire between two ethnic groups in Machar Colony,” he recalled.
The city’s uncertain law and order situation, he said, had rendered the buyers (of scrap) without cash. “Gone are the days when the buyers used to pay us on the spot. Every next day the banks are closed for a strike or violence. They say we can’t en-cash our cheques,” he said.
This uncertainty, Abdullah complained, had brought the prices of recyclable scrap down. The trash items made of plastic, iron and paper that once used to be priced at Rs 42, Rs 48 and Rs 20 per kilogram now fetch, respectively, Rs 35, Rs 38 and Rs 10 only. The rates of scrap copper also decreased to Rs 550 from Rs 800 per kg.
Abdullah, who has received his education from a Maddrassah and is engaged to be married soon, sees Karachi as an ideal place for living provided the city becomes peaceful for all those living here.