A hard 'brick' to crack

February 02, 2015

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- Online/File
- Online/File

LAHORE: Mud-caked children yell with happiness as one of them hits a sixer. They are playing on the unpaved road near their small brick homes. Younger ones totter around unsupervised, poking their fingers in the dirt, exploring away. Some are not even fully clothed.

Today, there is no work to be done. Fridays are a holiday. Belonging to the family of a kiln worker is hard on these children. They cannot escape work, and can-not receive education. There are no schools to help them study, and no dispensaries where they can take their illnesses or injuries.

Instead on weekdays, they spend their time in the searing heat of their respective kilns, grinding the mud, making the bricks, and carrying the heavy unbaked ones to the kiln fires. Primarily this is their parents` work, but if each member of the family contributes, the family may get more output and thus more pay.

The rates are decided per 1,000 bricks. A worker should be paid Rs880 for every 1,000 bricks that are baked but that's only on paper.

While kiln owners with the help of their tyrannical munshis or accountants only pay Rs740 to their workers instead of the Labour Department's fixed wages, even this rate is restricted to summer months. During the winters, kiln workers cannot make so many bricks and end up with a paltry sum of Rs300.

In this particular kiln at Dhonday Pind village of Raiwind tehsil, the workers are extremely distressed. For them Friday is not a holiday it is just a day to worry more.

"We have complained to the DVC (District Vigilance Committee) and we have tried to reason with the munshi, but to no avail," says Muneer, probably the only man in the area who can read and write.

"Even if they follow the minimum wage, Rs880 per 1,000 bricks, it is not enough, but the arbitrarily set rates during winter when the weather does not allow for much work is killing us. Owners charge us for our quarters too, Rs1,700 per quarter and if someone has two quarters, then they are done for."

Also these workers are usually not even provided social security cards, which can help them pay for any medical treatment. Children too need to be listed on the card but only once they have birth certificates. Most babies are delivered in precarious conditions at home, and have no birth certificates. Therefore, their medical treatment then becomes a problem despite their parents having a card.

"In the cold weather when work becomes slow and the brick mixture does not mold properly, our output is reduced to about 500 to 700 bricks per day, per family," says Ashraf. "Usually we produce about 6,000 bricks a week. We get paid on Thursdays but sometimes they have no qualms about not paying some of us for one whole week."

Expenses become a huge issue.

"Winter time has us all buying things on credit from nearby shops, which we have to pay back during the summer months," says Parveen. "Our children fall ill more often too."

For a kiln worker, debt is a lifelong curse. Razia Bibi, a middle-aged woman, is bitter about the life she has spent.

"They (kiln owners) have only taken from us and given us nothing in return. We are neither Pakistanis nor Indians...we have no identity of our own. They do not even help us get ID cards or register for social security."

And for young women, sexual abuse is also one of the many things they must face. In fact, almost all counter it in one form or the other. Asked what work she does at the kiln, nine-year-old Aasma begins to weep uncontrollably, palpably traumatised, but not revealing why.

The Bonded Labour Liberation Front (BLLF), which is the only organisation doing any ground work in Punjab, has contributed a lot by informal training sessions with the workers, and even building latrines for them. For every new project though they first spend a long time, even years, in persuading the kiln owners to allow them. Otherwise they face even greater resistance.

"There were times when we used to visit kiln workers in the dark of the night with a lantern or a torch, disguised in a burqa," says Syeda Ghulam Fatima, General Secretary BLLF, who has been working alongside her parents in BLLF, ever since she was in the eighth grade.

"Times are better now. But still kiln owners are tyrannical and hardly ever reasonable. These workers know of no festivals or holidays. Life for them means working off a never ending, incalculable debt, which can go on for generations."

Ghulam Fatima has personally bought an acre of land where she plans to set up a school and a dispensary soon.

Mahar Safdar Ali, program manager in BLLF, says brick workers work in cycles during the year. During one cycle of 5 to 6 weeks, they produce about a million bricks. In the winters and the rainy season, the fires die down inevitably. Output therefore is lessened.

"Unfortunately, the minimum wage board has set wages for about 104 industries, but somehow the kiln owners dodge away from these. Because they make gold out of simple mud, they are rich and often tend to even buy out any forces that want to counter them. Costs to set up a kiln are low, and while they pay an average of Rs740 per 1,000 bricks to their workers, the same bricks are sold in the market for about Rs10,000 (per 1,000).

Mehar Abdul Haq, General Secretary of the Brick Kiln Owners` Association, blatantly calls it a lie. "It is a downright lie that these workers are being paid Rs300. Owners are paying Rs750 to them," he says.

"The Minimum Wage Board arbitrarily decides rates when we are in mid season and it becomes difficult for us to implement these rates. When it comes to the government decisions, owners` demands and issues are sidelined. For example, they never take into account the fact that labourers are both skilled and unskilled and there should be different rates for both. Also the kiln owners that are producing low-quality bricks are the ones who are paying low rates."