By Robin Gomes
It’s 25 years since the murder of Iqbal Masih who himself was a slave of Pakistan’s “carpet mafia”. And for 25 years the Christian Cultural Movement, based in the Spanish capital, Madrid, has been campaigning against child slavery worldwide in the name of Iqbal Masih.
The movement insists that the April 16 International Day Against Child Slavery is not the same as the United Nations’ World Day Against Child Labour that is marked on June 12. Child slavery, it says, is different from child labour.
A slave of bonded labour
Iqbal Masih was born in 1983 in Muridke, a commercial city outside Lahore, in a poor Christian family. A victim of bonded labour, he was put to work at the age of 4 by his parents to pay off their debt of Rupees 600 borrowed from an owner of a carpet factory.
In the factory, Iqbal and most of the other children had to work long hours under cramped conditions, tightly bound with chains to the carpet looms to prevent them from escaping. Realizing that his family’s debt wouldn't be paid off anytime soon, the boy, at the age of 10, broke loose and escaped from his slavery.
From slavery to rights activism
He exposed the carpet mafia, urging the world not to buy carpets made by slave children. Though stunted and hunched from 6 years of malnutrition and slavery under inhuman conditions, Iqbal helped over 3,000 Pakistani children escape their bonded slavery and made speeches about child labour throughout the world.
He was assassinated on April 16 1995, allegedly by the carpet mafia, after receiving many threats for having closed companies that used child slaves.
According to the Christian Cultural Movement, there are 400 million enslaved children between 4 and 14 years old around the world, 165 million are under 5 years of age today. Wars, prostitution, labour exploitation, starvation, ill-treatment… are the normal day for millions of children around the world.
While the exploitation of children in various forms is multiplying in the developing world, the movement says, the practice is re-emerging in the developed countries.
Iqbal’s activism brought him international recognition and he was awarded a prize in Stockholm and Boston. In 1994 he received the Reebok Youth in Action Award. He inspired the creation of organizations such as “Free the Children”, in Canada, and the Iqbal Masih Shaheed Children Foundation, which has over 20 schools in Pakistan. The “World's Children's Prize for the Rights of the Child” was awarded to him posthumously in 2000.
A square in the northwestern Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela is named after Iqbal Masih.
The United States Department of Labor's Bureau of International Labor Affairs (ILAB) has the annual “Iqbal Masih Award for the Elimination of Child Labor”.