Syeda Ghulam Fatima is a Pakistani human and labour rights activist, known for her work in ending bonded labour in brick kilns. She is General Secretary of Lahore-based Bonded Labour Liberation Front Pakistan (BLLF).
Fatima is the daughter of a trade-unionist and small-scale railway employee Syed Deedar Hussain. She holds a Masters Degree in Political Science from Punjab University. During her education, she and her friends would go to the brick kilns to teach the workers on a volunteer basis.
There are over 20,000 brick kilns operating in Pakistan, supported by millions of workers who are kept there through bonded labour. In rural Pakistan, illiterate and desperate labourers are tricked into accepting small loans which will be paid off through working at brick kilns for a supposedly predetermined length of time. Once they begin work, their debt grows larger as time goes on making it impossible for them to ever afford to clear their debt. If the labourer dies, their debt is passed on to their children. The practice is illegal but due to the power and wealth of brick kiln owners the law is not often enforced. Local police and officials are often bribed to protect the interests of kiln owners. Over one million men, women, and children are claimed to be trapped in this system of modern day slavey, but Fatima herself estimates it is closer to four million.
Together with her husband Mehar Safdar, Fatima has been campaigning for worker’s rights and for the end of bonded labour in Pakistani brick factories and kilns. She has struggled to free and rehabilitate trapped workers for years, in one instance Fatima and her husband dressed in rags to try to find a four-year-old child who had been captured by the kiln owners while trying to escape. Days later, they heard crying from the kiln owner’s house and went to court to force the police to take action. Officers searched the house and found the girl who refused to eat, talk or cry for weeks. Later it was discovered that she had been beaten by the owner every time she had cried for food while in captivity.
Fatima is the General Secretary of Lahore-based Bonded Labour Liberation Front Pakistan (BLLF). Fatima and her husband run the BLLF from the Freedom Campus for Bonded Labour at Lawrence Road Lahore. The Freedom Campus provides a centre to release and rehabilitate bonded labourers. Fatima also works to campaign for the legal rights of female domestic staff and home-based workers through out Pakistan.
The organisation relies on membership fee, monthly subscriptions, donations and grants and all money goes towards the campaign against bonded labour. It aims to establish Freedom Centers throughout rural Pakistan so that every bonded labourer has access to advocacy and legal aid. The Freedom Centers would also provide an opportunity for rehabilitation and to work towards eradicating injustice, illiteracy, inequality and poverty in Pakistan.
Fatima has been threatened, attacked, and wounded because of her activism. On a visit to court to attend a hearing against a kiln owner she was surrounded by a group of men who threatener her with violence if she did not drop the case. She refused and was knocked to the ground, the men shot her in the knee and then did the same to her brother. She was taken to the public hospital but turned away as politicians from the local ruling party had forbidden the doctors from treating her. Her attackers were never prosecuted and Fatima was forced to sell her house to afford treatment at a private hospital. Brick kiln workers put up some money to help pay for her treatment, despite their own financial problems. They also lined up to donate their blood.
Fatima has helped to release more than 80,000 bonded labourers in Pakistan from all provinces. In her fight to reduce poverty, she has trained more than 600 women in alternative skills. Fatima is also a member of the provincial committee for Abolition of Bonded Labour in Punjab and of the District Vigilance Committee in the 12th district of Pakistan. Fatima was featured in the 2014 EMI award-winning Vice documentary episode about her work and in August 2015, Fatima and the Bonded Labour Liberation Front were featured in a 7-part series by Humans of New York. As a result of this exposure, an appeal lead to over $2,300,000 USD being raised in several days for the Bonded Labour Liberation Front. The money could not have come at a better time, as Fatima had exhausted her own financial resources and was unable to pay for her own private medical bills.
In September 2015, Fatima was awarded a Clinton Global Citizen Award for “leadership in civil society” in New York.