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Monday, June 09, 2014  

Brick Kilns - Death destinations for migrant workers

"It’s only to earn a basic minimum livelihood that most of the poor families of disadvantaged communities of western Orissa leave their home and land up in the brick kilns operating in Andhra Pradesh and Tamilnadu. But once in the brick kiln, these innocent poor families fall into the grip of sucking tentacles of the kiln owners for whom lives of the workers make no value against the brick. It becomes a situation of slavery and bondage in the makeshift camps inside a kiln where many of the workers die, many suffer from serious ailments while struggling to achieve the target. Initially bearing a hope, brick kilns turn out to be death destinations for many of the migrant workers."

Umi Daniel

In just two months from now the brick kiln workers of western Odisha would return home from other States where they had migrated to work. Worksite schools particularly located in Thiruvalur in Tamilnadu and Nalgonda in Andhra Pradesh are already facing sharp drop out of children who are being coerced to put extra work to fulfil their target number of bricks. It may be noted that worksite schools are run by some NGOs like Aide et Action, Action Aid in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh to provide education to the children who migrate to the brick kilns with their parents. These children are employed in the kilns from very early age. The entire family has to accomplish their commitment of making 1.5 lakh or more bricks for which they had taken advance from the labour contractor (Sardar) - the middlemen between the labourers and the brick kiln owners. Lesser the brick moulded, lesser is the in the weekly food allowance labourers get from the owners. As per the norms, each 1000 bricks produced fetch Rs.30 as food allowance. During summer a family of three (generally two adults and a child) would roughly make 7000 bricks per week and entitled to get Rs.210 as food allowance.

An average family size of 3-4 have to reconcile their food need with whatever they get as weekly allowance. However, few are doomed as their own calculations have been flawed and the brick kiln owners set a revised target to make more bricks than the number agreed earlier with the labour contractor. In most cases, the labour contractor deceive the labourers about the terms of actual negotiation with the owner regarding wages, number of bricks to be produced, transport and food allowance for the workers. At every juncture, the labour contractor earns commission and pass on the buck to the labourer who at the end has to repay the same by doing extra work without any extra remuneration. Now there is no option left for the hapless people but to obey the dictate of the owner. Otherwise, they will be harassed for their final payment, will be denied transport, food and travel allowance as well.

In December 2009, Rahasa Rana from Jamutbahal village in Sandhibahal panchayats of Gaisilet block of Bargarh district of Odisha migrated with 3 member of his family to Puchiathipet in the suburbs of Chennai. He had taken an advance of 15,000 from the local labour contractor for making bricks. In 2009, the movement of the people to brick kiln had delayed by three months. Usually people migrate from western Odisha to Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu brick kilns during September/October. But this time around the movement had been delayed by two/three months owing to reduced demand for real estate which in turn reduced the demand of the bricks. Experts attributed the drop in demand to the global recession that also affected India. After November 2009, the market showed signs of revival impacting the renewed demand on the brick industries. The workers were thus recruited late in December and started moving to the brick kiln by January. Rahasa and his family put in daily hard work of 12 hours and accomplished an average 7,000 bricks per week. Within two month the entire family moulded more than 50,000 bricks. However, during middle of March, due to excessively hard and long hours of work accompanied by inadequate food, Rahasa slowly started complaining severe weakness, nausea and ill health. The local RMP (Registered Medical Practitioner) gave him some vitamin pills but to no visible result. And after two days Rahasa collapsed before he could be taken to the hospital. The owner cremated his body in the same evening and the family was sent back with a compensation of 2,000 rupees. The owner was in fact more worried about the completion of task which remained half done by the family than the treatment of Rahasa.

Abhi Bhoi, from Bijaghat, in Lokhana Gram Panchayat under Muribahal block in Bolangir district of Odisha too joined in January this year with other migrant labourer from his village to the brick kiln in Chennai. His wife and two daughters also accompanied him. He would not have thought in his wildest dreams that this would turn out to be his final journey of life. He had taken an advance of rupees 20,000 from the labour contractor and landed up in the kiln with an agreement of making 150000 bricks in five months. Mostly during winter the output of brick making goes up to 1500 bricks per day and a unit of brick makers can achieve target of 40,000 bricks per month. But in summer the output sharply dips down as labourers have to work in the scorching heat and under humid conditions in Chennai. The task is quite painstaking. The workers put their sweat and blood to meet the target. After working for two and half months, Abhi Bhoi complained of stomach problem but ignored thinking it a minor health disorder owing to problems in adjusting to the climate, food and water in the worksite. Gradually, however he started feeling acute pain at the lower abdomen. The local RMP administered some pills but there was no improvement of condition. He was admitted in a general hospital at Central Chennai and died the same day. The owner claimed to have spent thousands of rupees for his treatment but couldn’t save his life. The family members performed last rites and rituals of the departed soul at the brick kiln with their fellow workers. The owner instead of sending the family of the deceased back to home state asked them to continue work. Since they are no longer capable of making bricks in absence of Abhi, they are now engaged as head loaders in the brick kiln. 

Working as brick carrier or head loader in the brick kilns is one of the tough and labour intensive work. Each of the labourers has to carry brick on their head and walk a distance of 50-150 meters. Each brick weights approximately 4.5 kilo. The man and women both do the work and each of the people gets an advance of rupees 5,000 to transport approximately 1.5 lakh bricks on head load in the full season. The wage system is somewhere rupees 50-60 to transport 1000 bricks. While, rupees 40 is deducted from the advance, rupees 10 are given as food allowance during the work. In a weeks’ time, a group of 2-3 members of a family carries around 10,000 bricks which is equivalent of 45,000 kilos!

Garib Sunani from Goheria village in Golamunda block, Kalahandi district of Odisha is a first timer to the brick kiln and work as brick carrier in the brick kiln in Chennai. He and his wife have took advance money of rupees 10,000 from the labour contractor. Both of them have to transport 300000 bricks on head load during the span of 5 months. During their work in the brick kiln both wife and husband would earn weekly rupees 120 as food allowance. However, one day while carrying brick Garib Sunani slipped and fell down and got his spinal cord injured. The RMP at the site gave some pain killer but Garib didn’t get any relief. With unbearable pain he is continuing the work and the owner is hell-bent on him to complete his commitment. Now the burden has obviously shifted to his wife and daughter who are struggling hard to fulfil the task. 

Case of Rupadhar Bariha from Solbandha village under Patnagarh block of Bolangir district in Odisha portrays a gloomy case of death and slavery in Brick Kiln. Bariha with his wife Anjana and two minor sons went to Udaimal in Nalgonda district of Andhra Pradesh 6 years back. They were given no advance money but were kept as bondage labourers there for these many years. Every time they asked the Kiln owner Jagan Seth to go home after the end of the session, Rupadhar was subjected to physical assaults and threat by the owner and his supervisor. However, finally in April 2010 when he urged to go home, Rupadhar was severely beaten up by the kiln owner and his goons. When the family protested, they were also ill treated. Dejected and hurt Rupadhar was left in his makeshift hut at the site, but later he was found dead in a suspicious state of hanging from the roof. His wife was shocked, terrified but was unable to protest the inhuman act committed by the kiln owner. The family was kept for 8 more days after the death of Rupa and were allowed to go home with a compensation of 1000 rupees. Signature of Anjana – wife of Rupadhar - was taken on a paper by the kiln owner where something in Telugu was written which Anjana could not read. The bereaved family had to perform his last rites near the kilns itself. Back in their village, the family does not dare to file a complaint with the police due to lack of confidence to follow up the case.

Brick kilns in India produce around 140 billion brick and it is the second largest brick producing country after China. If someone does a simple calculation, the brick kilns which are the backbone of the growing real estate and infrastructure industry will be anywhere close to 280 billion rupee of business turn over. According to Indian Brick Manufacture Association, approximately 1 lakh brick kilns are operating in India which employs more than 4 million workers. Most of the workers are migrants who belong to backward and underdeveloped regions of the country and normally hail from low income and socially disadvantaged section of the society. Till today, the brick manufacturing is considered as highly labour intensive which consist both skilled and unskilled work force covering adult and child labour. Bandhua Mukti Morcha, the national campaign against bonded labour led by Swami Aginivesh in 1981 has first raised the issues of the brick kiln workers who are living a life of bondage and contemporary form of slavery. The entire process of recruitment, transit, working and living conditions in the brick kiln is a testimony and indication of existence of severe form of human bondage.

Government under its arm has a plethora of laws, legislation, regulatory and enforcement apparatus to protect the rights and entitlement of migrant labourers. Inter State Migrant Workman Act of 1979 which was enacted to protect the concern of migrant labour has failed to safeguard the interest and living condition and wellbeing of worker which is a paramount obligation of the government at source and destination. On the other hand barring some labour unions, few civil society organisations are engaged with the migrant labourer to make them aware, organise and advocate for their rights and entitlement. Since it requires a concerted effort to network both at source and destination which involves networking at multiple states, tracking of labourers and coordinate with the respective states for the protection of rights and entitlements of the migrants. The government machinery in this regard has not done enough and lot more need to be done in regard to ensure labour standards, provision for compensation, living condition and elimination of all forms of bondage and slavery that exist in the brick kilns.

India with its roaring economy and a distinct inequality of people in the rural area is a huge concern for all. While, it is important to reduce the distress or forced migration of people, a more human approach to manage and monitor migration is of utmost importance to provide a level playing ground for the unorganised labourers where their rights and wellbeing are ensured.

(Author is the Head (Thematic) at Aide et Action, Bhubaneswar)

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