Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Saving Child Labourers is Big Business

Iqbal Masih
Campaigning on behalf of destitute children in Pakistan can earn millions for NGOs in the west. However, those millions are often spent to support lavish lifestyles of a few in the west while the destitute in Pakistan continue to suffer.
Each year, Canadians donate millions of dollars to not-for-profit organisations who are helping impoverished children in low-income countries. While many organisations receiving millions in donations for the poor in Pakistan help the needy, others have used the money to build small real estate fortunes while subsidising extravagant lifestyle of their founders.
One such organisation is Free the Children, a not-for-profit started in Toronto by Craig and Marc Kielburger while they were only teenagers.  Free the Children and its sister organisations campaign against child labour and create opportunities for the youth to help other youths in need.  While Kielburgers’ hard work and commitment is commendable, one is dismayed at the way Free the Children has been using a false story about the murder of a child labourer in Pakistan to further its cause over the past 16 years.
It all started in April 1995 when Craig Kielburger reportedly read a story in The Toronto Star about Iqbal Masih, a child labourer who was sold into bonded labour by his parents. According to the story, Iqbal worked for years as a slave labourer until he was freed with the help of Ehsanullah Khan, who then headed the Bonded Labour Liberation Front (BLLF) in Pakistan. The Toronto Star story claimed that the “carpet mafia” in Pakistan orchestrated Masih’s murder.
After reading the story in The Toronto Star Craig Kielburger sprang into action and started Free the Children, which now has a worldwide reach. Since 1995, Craig and Marc Kielburger have run campaigns to build schools and assist communities in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. However, Kielburgers’ campaign against child labour in Pakistan has cost millions of dollars in lost export contracts that forced the very same workers they intended to help into abject poverty and a life of begging and misery.
The news story in the Toronto Star was reported by Kathy Gannon of the Associated Press on April 18, 1995. Ms. Gannon quoted Ehsanullah Khan (BLLF) who claimed that Iqbal Masih’s was murdered at the behest of the “carpet mafia”. Mr. Khan misrepresented the facts about Masih’s tragic death and used it audaciously to advance his campaign against the carpet manufacturers. Ms. Gannon, a seasoned reporter, quickly caught on after interviews with the witnesses and Iqbal’s family revealed a different picture. She filed another story the very next day that explained how and why Iqbal Masih died.
Tahir Ikram of Reuters in Pakistan also reported on the story after visiting Iqbal Masih’s family. Based on the eye witness accounts and police reports Ikram reported that Iqbal Masih, while riding a bike in the fields with his cousins Liaquat Masih (10) and Faryab Masih (17), ran into a man having sex with a donkey. The man panicked and fired shots at the boys killing Iqbal, while injuring his cousins.
An independent inquiry by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan also concluded that the carpet industry in Pakistan was not behind Iqbal Masih’s murder. Inayat Bibi, Iqbal Masih’s mother, also told Reuters that she did not believe her son was murdered by the carpet industry.
Since then, the story of Iqbal Masih’s death has taken a life of its own. Millions of dollars have been raised in his name to free children from bonded labour, to build schools, to dedicate daycares in his honour, and to stage plays against child labour. Every time Iqbal Masih is remembered, a false account of his death is reiterated creating more hardships for the struggling carpet weavers in Pakistan.
While millions have been raised in Iqbal Masih’s name, not a penny reached his destitute family. The Friday Times, a Lahore-based weekly, reported after Iqbal Masih’s death that his family had no knowledge of the thousands of dollars awarded to him in 1994 when he visited the United States to receive the Reebock’s Human Rights award.
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