Pakistan church helps workers get organized, fight for rights

Pakistan church helps workers get organized, fight for rights

ICC Note: This story highlights one of the biggest problems Christians face in Pakistan – they are easily taken advantage of by employers because of their minority status – and is an encouraging report how the church is dealing with that problem.

9/6/2007 Pakistan (UCAN) – Cotton threads flying from the sock-weaving machine were a problem for Kiran Samuel at lunch time, until she and other employees took the advice of a Young Christian Workers (YCW) team.

“There was no separate room to dine in the hosiery factory,” Samuel told UCA News as she thanked the team. They suggested the signature campaign that compelled the factory to provide a separate dining room, where its employees could eat lunch without cotton getting in their food.

Samuel, 19, was one of 30 Christian factory and household workers, most of them teenagers, who attended the “Leadership Training for Workers” that the YCW team conducted Aug. 19 at Loyola Hall in Lahore , 270 kilometers (about 170 miles) southeast of Islamabad .

The YCW movement in Pakistan began in 1997 in Faisalabad diocese’s Toba Tek Singh parish, under the guidance of Father Bonnie Mendes, the parish priest. Father (later Cardinal) Joseph Cardijn founded the YCW in 1922 in Belgium . Now an international Catholic movement, it claims 3 million members in 80 countries.

Main topics at the Lahore seminar were difficulties workers face, how workers can organize and labor laws.

In his opening address, YCW team member Nadeem Fida urged the young workers to unite as a group. He blamed government officials for the death of Christian sanitation workers while cleaning sewers without proper equipment, and for the injustice done to Christian maids falsely accused of theft.

“Youth can bring change by getting organized and imparting awareness to others,” he said. Similarly, other team members urged them to review their lives and find practical solutions to their problems.

Citing the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesuit Father Renato Zeechin reflected upon YCW spirituality and urged all workers affiliated with the movement to help their co-workers irrespective of religion. “It is important to build a relationship with a worker, know his difficulties and then pray for their solution,” he advised. The priest, YCW Pakistan chaplain, celebrated the Mass that ended the program.

To date, the YCW team has formed 11 “base groups” of workers in Faisalabad diocese and nine in neighboring Lahore archdiocese. They visit these groups twice a month and reach out to other workers, but often must conceal what they are doing.

Talking with UCA News, Fida said the team goes “undercover” to different factories to report. “We pretend to be college students enjoying rural localities and take snapshots with brick-kiln workers, whose bosses otherwise do not allow them to speak to outsiders,” he explained.

They tell the workers about YCW’s objectives and urge them to form a base group so they can share and solve their problems more effectively with the YCW team. Fida said the team has succeeded in solving laborers’ problems such as low salaries by urging them to work together.

While the government has set a minimum pay rate of 290 rupees ($4.83 USD) for making 1,000 bricks, the payment in different districts of Punjab province ranges from 110 to 184 rupees. According to Fida, only 20 percent of 15,000 brick kilns in the country are registered.

Brick-kiln workers, primarily in Punjab province and North West Frontier Province , are treated as bonded labor, with even their children being forced to work making bricks. Court cases reveal that kiln owners imprison whole families and even shackle them with chains…[Go To Full Story]

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