Summer as harsh as their lives for brick kiln workers of Tamil Nadu

Thousands of debt-ridden people are languishing in brick kilns across TN that are often notorious for exploitation & bonded labour
A labourer working at a brick kiln on the outskirts of Puducherry.
A labourer working at a brick kiln on the outskirts of Puducherry.(Photo | Sriram R)

CHENNAI: For brick kiln workers in Tamil Nadu, the summer can be as harsh and out of hand like their lives. Since, the hot and humid weather conditions make work impossible during daytime in summer, the work hours are reversed and the workers are forced to burn the midnight oil.

The workers keep on in a valiant way in order to make ends meet, repay debts and, it's an endless struggle for them merely to survive.

Near Anjanchery village in Gingee taluk of Villupuram, workers M Karpagam (32) and M Muni (35) seek refuge from the scorching sun under the tall tamarind tree near their hut. The couple along with their three children aged 5, 7 and 10, have been residing at a private brick kiln for the past three years. They have been working for a daily income of Rs 500 each.

“We live in a mud hut with a thatched roof which is comparatively better to a cement-roofed house during summer. But this year, it's too hot even inside this hut," said Karpagam.

Pointing out that it is not just the furnace at the kiln but even the hut that gets red hot, Muni said they pour water around the hut to bring down the temperature.

“We start our work as early as 3 am, laying clay in the brick shelves and letting it dry for the rest of the day. Since it’s very hot this year, the clay dries faster. We make several batches in a day and leave them to dry for a day or two and then burn them in the furnace in the evenings,” said Karpagam.

The couple take a two-hour break for lunch and dinner. “It’s just rasam and buttermilk rice along with some fried fish or pickle on the side for most days, ” they said.

Ask them, they would say the only reason that makes them work in the kiln is for what they were paid. Otherwise, the family would be in deep debt due to the loans they’ve taken from private money lenders. “For a loan of Rs 50,000 we had taken two years ago for my sister’s marriage, we are paying monthly and weekly interests to the money lenders,” said Muni.

Karpagam and Muni are not alone. There are thousands of debt-ridden workers who toil in brick kilns, which are often notorious for exploitation and bonded labour.

The workers say the only reason that makes them work in the kiln is the money they get | S Dinesh
The workers say the only reason that makes them work in the kiln is the money they get | S Dinesh

G Chandran (48) from Kandarakottai near Panruti in Cuddalore district works in a brick kiln at Kayathur near Vikrawandi in Villupuram district. He said those at his kiln shift the work to the night during the summer season.

“In the evening, we prepare the mud and begin brick cutting at night after dinner, finishing the work the next morning. Depending on our workload, we put in 10 to 12 hours, equivalent to what we do during the daytime in other seasons,” Chandran explained.

G Rajendran (47) has been working in a brick kiln at Kuttinaickenpatti area in Alanganallur in Madurai with his family for the past two years. Though his children are studying, they too work in the brick kiln in their free time.

He and his wife Umadevi (37) mix red sand and manufacture bricks together. “If we manufacture 1,000 bricks, we will get Rs 900 as wages. During the summer, we used to work from 2.30 am to 7 am, then 3 pm to 7 pm. Otherwise, it is very difficult to manage the scorching sun,” he said.

If their health gets really worse, the owner would give some extra money for treatment. “There is no insurance or other benefits. Even the Tamil Nadu government did not include us in the unorganised sector welfare board,” he alleged.

S Amsavalli from Ariyalur said, “We start in the morning and work till evening. As we have to work with dust and smoke, we are likely to suffer from respiratory illnesses such as asthma and cough. Also, it leads to skin problems and allergies. Despite hard work, we do not earn enough to even make our children study. We are forced to bring them into this work with us.”

K Srinivasan, a brick kiln worker from Vellore, said despite the heat, they are forced to work. “During rainy days, we face off-season, with no work available. So, in the summer, we work extra to save money,” he said, adding he has never seen such a harsh summer in his 15 years of working in the kiln.

(With inputs from Krithika Srinivasan @ Villupuram, Jeyalakshmi Ramanujam @ Madurai, Bagalavan Perier @ Cuddalore, P Thiruselvam @ Tiruchy and Rajalakshmi Sampath @ Vellore)

(In this series, TNIE looks at the condition of workers toiling under the sun)

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