A new report and documentary by Anti-Slavery International and its partners reveals “appalling” levels of slavery in India’s brick kiln industry, including endemic presence of debt-bondage and child slavery.
The report surveyed workers and brick kilns across Punjab, India, and found that the recruitment and payment systems underpin this cycle of slavery, trapping seasonal migrant workers in bonded labour year after year.
The report found that 96% of brick kiln moulders have taken loans and all had their wages withheld for an entire season lasting eight to ten months; whilst having to work on average fourteen hours a day in the summer months. 65% to 80% of children under fourteen are working for an average of nine hours a day in the summer months.
These practices affect a huge number of people, with at least 100,000 functioning brick kilns in India employing an estimated 23 million workers.
Sarah Mount, Anti-Slavery International’s Asia Programme Manager, said “We have found appalling levels of bonded labour and child labour in Indian brick kilns. Young children are working for nine hours a day in a dusty air filled with chemicals rather than going to school.”
Change the payment systemThe report found that brick kiln workers are regularly cheated out of promised wages and argues that the recruitment and payment systems is at the heart of exploitation practices.
Workers are provided a loan before they start work, immediately going into debt. Then they are trapped in the kiln having to work for an entire season without being paid their wages, not knowing if they have worked off their debt or not. As no records are kept, at the end of the season the brick kiln owner often decides to pay less.
Brick kiln moulders are paid per piece of brick made and usually as a family, rather than each worker paid individually per day or month, with only the male head of the family being paid, whilst women not getting get paid at all.
The rate paid per piece of brick made is often below the minimum wage, and well below what a worker would earn if they were paid minimum wages on a time based system.
This system of payment also encourages child labour: in order to make at least minimum wages, families get their children to help them make more bricks.
The working and living conditions are dire. Nearly 90% of the kilns don’t have access to running water and the sites are filled with dust and other chemicals. On average entire families live in cramped rooms of 7.6 square meters.
Time for Government to actAccording to Anti-Slavery International, systemic change is needed, with Sarah Mount stating: “Often brick kiln workers are rescued from a situation of bonded labour in brick kilns in one season but then have little choice in the following season but to work in the brick kilns again.
“They have not earned proper wages in the season before, so they may easily find themselves having to take out a loan again and with their children working to help make ends meet.
“The system of payment of wages in the brick kilns must be changed to ensure this cycle of bonded and child labour is broken.”
Jai Singh, director of Volunteers for Social Justice, Anti-Slavery International’s partner organisation in the research, agrees systemic change is needed, stating: “The Government of India must ensure workers are paid minimum wages regularly, and a time-based wage. This would help reduce poverty and vulnerability of families, so there is less need for children to work, and would reduce control employers have over workers.”
“Women are invisible workers. They should be paid individually for their work on a time-based system.”
“It is also the Government of India’s obligation to urgently start ensuring brick kiln children are getting proper education to give them a chance for better future – this is the children’s rights under Indian law”.
The report argues that whilst bonded labour is illegal under Indian law and the Government of India has taken some steps to address bonded labour in recent months, they don’t go far enough and the law is often not implemented by corrupted or under-resourced officials.
Jai Singh said: “It is time that the government takes that responsibility and ends this exploitation that shouldn’t be taking place in the 21st century.
“We need to be strengthening worker protections in labour laws in addition to strengthening the bonded labour law and rehabilitation scheme.”
Anti-Slavery International director Aidan McQuade said: “The conditions that this report finds are an affront to the Constitution of India. Articles 23 and 24 of the Constitution prohibit trafficking for forced labour and child labour, abuses that this report finds endemic in the brick kiln industry.”
Key statistics from the report:
Full report in PDF format: “Slavery in India’s Brick Kilns & the Payment System: way forward in the fight for fair wages, decent work and eradication of slavery”
Published on AntiSlavery International on September 20, 2017.