Brick kiln workers

Published October 17, 2018

EACH winter, Lahore is enveloped by a thick blanket of smog. Fearing yet another public health disaster this year, Punjab Chief Minister Usman Buzdar has reportedly approved Rs250m to aid the introduction of ‘zigzag technology’ in brick kilns. Under this model, which has been implemented in some other Saarc countries with success, bricks are arranged in a ‘zigzag manner’ and a ‘single-man-coal-feeding system’ is applied. This ensures greater air flow inside chimneys, which then reduces the levels of black carbon emissions. If the new technology is implemented across the board, it could help decrease carbon emissions by around 60pc. The move is welcomed by members of the brick kiln owners association, though confusion about the exact details remains. However, the government’s second proposal — about shutting down brick kilns that are not implementing this new model from Oct 20 till Dec 31 — has been met with sharp resistance. Owners argue it would make redundant the large workforce that is directly or indirectly linked with the brick kiln industry. The smog lasts for approximately seven days, they say, so it makes little sense to shut down the kilns for 70 days. For their part, officials admit they have no way of ensuring that brick kilns remain closed; they have also not announced any plans for compensating owners for their losses or providing an alternative means of livelihood to the labourers. In its attempt to mitigate a health crisis, the government might create an employment crisis.

Absent from this entire conversation are the voices of the workers themselves. It is no secret that workers in the brick kiln industry are some of the most exploited, sentenced to work on the land until they pay off their debts to the owners. In order to come up with a comprehensive, realistic and, most importantly, humane plan, the government has to take all stakeholders into the fold — and that includes the workforce. Because the workers are the ones who have everything to lose.

Published in Dawn, October 17th, 2018

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