NEW DELHI: Ramcharan Varma, 48, his wife Sunila Devi, their four sons and a daughter made 4,000 bricks every day. The family got around `500 for every 1,000 bricks. The lockdown then happened, leaving the brick kiln worker from Uttar Pradesh’s Chitrakoot district and his family in the lurch.Rations did arrive, but the relief was temporary. The employer handed out Ramcharan a receipt of `2,700 — an amount that would be deducted when he resumes work at the kiln at Bhilwara district in Rajasthan. “We are surviving on rice, roti and potato mostly,” said Sunila Devi.
The plight of Varmas is endemic to the brick kiln industry, which is infamous for bonded labour, meagre wages, child slavery, physical abuse, unhygienic conditions among others. Various estimates put the number of brick kiln workers at over 12 million in India.
The labour intense industry, which till now has no mechanisation, remains a highly exploitative industry, pointed Sudhir Katiyar, secretary, Centre for Labour Research and Action. “The current situation is likely to push them further into debt bondage. In most cases, workers are employed after they are given an advance amount. In instances, where they want to leave early and not work for the entire season which lasts between six to eight months, their wages are deducted.”
Though the Rajasthan government recently allowed brick kilns to open with certain restrictions, not all owners have resumed work. “Employers are not compensating workers for the period they are losing work. In many instances, the workers are also being cheated with owners bringing rations and overcharging them. This will increase their chances of being in debt bondage,” said Ratan Lal Bhil, president, brick kiln labour union in Rajasthan.
In Uttar Pradesh’s Pratapgarh district, Ram Kailash, 26, said workers had not received any relief from the state government or from their employers. “We at least have some money left with us. My acquaintances are starving due to lack of rations. Their condition is worse,” said Kailash, who is from Bilaspur, Chhattisgarh.
The conditions were no better before the pandemic struck. A 2017 report by Anti-Slavery International, which did a survey in Punjab, found 96 per cent brick kiln moulders had taken loans and their wages were withheld for an entire season. Workers were regularly cheated of their wages, it found. Migrant workers are more vulnerable as they take a higher advance loan and are hired through contractors, the report noted.
Ashok Khandelwal, national advisor, National Struggle Committee of Brick Kiln Workers, said there is an immediate need for a central task force to ensure that workers can access the government’s relief measures. “There is a need for a database for brick kiln workers where each employer and each worker is registered.”
In a communication to the Labour ministry on April 6, the platform has sought a notification where establishments and employers should send their identification numbers along with a list of all the workers to ensure the workforce is not left out of the government’s relief packages.
Wages of 96% workers withheld, says study
A 2017 report by Anti-Slavery International, which did a survey in Punjab, found 96 per cent brick kiln moulders had taken loans and their wages were withheld for an entire season. Workers were regularly cheated of their wages, it found.