Slavery in India’s Brick Kilns & the Payment System: Way forward in the fight for fair wages, decent work and eradication of slavery
This report was published in September 2017, by human rights organisations Anti-Slavery International (ASI), London, and Volunteers for Social Justice, Punjab. It notes that debt-bondage and child labour are extremely common in brick kilns in India and examines the various factors which contribute to the “the cycle of slavery in India’s brick kilns.”
According to the United Nations’ Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery, debt-bondage is “the status or condition arising from a pledge by a debtor of his personal services or of those of a person under his control as security for a debt.” This report discusses the way brick kilns workers are recruited and paid, emphasising the importance of power relations in perpetuating cycles of debt-bondage and child labour in brick kilns.
The report focuses on patheras (those who mould and dry the bricks from clay), who form most of the workforce in brick kilns in Punjab. It examines data from two primary sources, the first being a study conducted in 2016 by Kaarak – an advisory and professional services organisation based in New Delhi – on behalf of Anti-Slavery International, interviewing 383 brick kiln workers from Chhattisgarh, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh. The other is a survey of over 3,000 brick kiln workers from Punjab conducted by Volunteers for Social Justice between 2015 and 2016.
The 64-page report is divided into five chapters: Executive Summary (chapter 1); Introduction (chapter 2); Key Findings & Analysis (chapter 3); Conclusion and Recommendations (chapter 4); Appendix: Full Research Findings (chapter 5). This last chapter is further divided into six sections: Who is working at the kilns? (section A); A new form of bondage: The recruitment and payment system- debt and withholding of wages (section B); Working hours, overtime, entitlements and leave (section C); Transfer between kilns (section D); Employment records and registers (section E); Access to basic amenities, health and education (section F).
According to the survey of 383 brick kiln workers conducted on behalf of ASI, 80 per cent of children aged 5-14 years at the brick kilns in Punjab, Chhattisgarh and UP, reported working there. About 12 per cent of these children were employed as ‘main workers’, or those engaged in all tasks carried out at the kilns, while 68 per cent worked as ‘helpers’ doing less strenuous tasks. Regardless of whether they were working as the main worker or helper, children worked for about nine hours a day during summer and seven hours a day during winter.
The ASI survey indicates that all adolescent children between 14 and 18 years at the brick kilns reported working there – 77 per cent as main workers and 23 per cent as helpers. The average working day was reported to be 12 hours long.
The report states that all the moulders in the ASI survey belonged to marginalised communities. About 53 per cent of the respondents were from Scheduled Castes (SCs) while 47 per cent were from Other Backward Classes (OBCs). Approximately 60 per cent of the workers were interstate migrants – 40 per cent of the migrants from Chhattisgarh were from the Satnami community (in the SC category), while 93 per cent of the migrants from Uttar Pradesh belonged to OBC communities.
Workers are usually hired as a family unit with the wages being paid to the male head of the household. This means female workers are not paid any wages at all. None of the female brick moulders surveyed were registered as workers at the kiln, making their significant labour entirely invisible and uncompensated.
About 96 per cent of the adult male brick moulders reported taking an advance payment or loan before starting work at the kiln. Roughly 44 per cent received an advance of less than Rs. 5,000 per worker in the unit. Sometimes the brick kiln owner requires the worker to pay interest on the loan, but this is often made clear only at the end of the working season when wages are finally settled and paid.
The ASI survey indicates that 10 per cent of workers had been threatened by the brick kiln owner or contractor with physical violence in the previous season — as “another way to control the labour force.”
Workers are paid per 1,000 bricks made by the working unit – this, the report states, “incentivises child labour and long working hours.” About 33 per cent of workers reported being paid less than the fixed wage rate Punjab, calculated per 1,000 bricks.
The state of Punjab mandates that any work beyond nine hours per day in a factory – including a brick kiln – qualifies as overtime and must be compensated. Yet, the surveyed brick kiln workers reported doing an additional five hours of work as a regular practice, without being paid for overtime.
The report notes that workers are often asked to pay additional costs incurred during work – 100 per cent of the workers paid for their transport to the kiln, and 90 per cent reported buying their own work equipment. About 90 per cent of the workers also reported paying for electricity at the worksite.
Workers reported not getting any paid leave. Moreover, the average amount of sick leave taken over the season (which lasts for about eight to ten months) was just 10 days.
The report also presents data from a survey of over 3,000 brick kiln workers from Punjab conducted by Volunteers for Social Justice between 2015 and 2016. It found that 87.72 per cent of the brick kilns relied on untreated ground water for drinking purposes, and 75.8 per cent of the kilns surveyed had toilet facilities without any water.
Overall, the report advocates the eradication of slavery from brick kilns in India. It recommends measures to ensure that wages are paid at the end of each month, women are recognised and registered as workers and paid individually, minimum wages are defined and adhered to, and that wage payments are credited to bank accounts to promote transparency and accountability.
Focus and Factoids by Khushi Agrawal.
Anti-Slavery International, London, and Volunteers for Social Justice, Punjab
Anti-Slavery International, London