Unorganised, exploited

Print edition : March 12, 2004

Haryana's brick-kilns provide seasonal employment to migrant workers at less-than-minimum wages, and their condition is what awaits the growing number of job-seekers.

in Rohtak

An aged brick-kiln worker in Rohtak district in Haryana.-PICTURES: T.K. RAJALAKSHMI

IN what was clearly a pre-election sop, Union Labour Minister Sahib Singh Verma launched a social security scheme for workers of the unorganised sector. The pension scheme purports to cover one crore workers in 50 districts while the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) estimates that there are 36.9 crore workers in the unorganised sector. The scheme will be funded by contributions from workers, employers and the government. The ability of the workers to contribute to this fund has not been considered. Workers like those employed in brick-kilns (bhatta) would certainly be unable to pay, given the uncertain nature of their work.

The workers Frontline spoke to at the brick-kilns in Rohtak district in Haryana were unaware of the social security scheme. There are 2,500 brick-kilns in Haryana, each on an average employing up to 150 persons. Of the total of nearly three lakh workers, 40,000 are children. In Rohtak alone, there are close to 100 brick-kilns. Bhiwani and Hisar are the other districts where kilns are found in plenty.

Kamala, who started working at a kiln owned by Gulshan Rai Narang at Kalanaur in Rohtak, says: "The owners never dissuade the children from working. I know that children below a particular age are not supposed to do manual work, but the other workers either do not know or as they need the money, they let their children work." Kamala started working immediately after her marriage. "That day I resolved I would not let my children work in the kiln. Earlier, there were no pushcarts to carry bricks. We carried them on our heads. What to do, we need some regular occupation. There are no factories, nothing," she laments. She had earlier worked in Bhiwani district along with her husband Nandram Dhaanak. The couple moved to Rohtak in search of work as a result of which their children have discontinued studies. There are no schools, no health care facilities nearby. The workers at the kilns are almost like bonded labour.

Meet Mohan. He is all of 12 and works in the Kalanaur brick-kiln. He has never been to school. His earliest memories are of working at the kiln. He knows he has to work there for the rest of his life, like his father. The jamaadar or the middleman who procures workers from outside the State denies that there are any children working at the kiln. However, he says that since the work is done on piece-rate, thus unless the whole family gets down to it, it will be difficult to make ends meet. "It is their own choice," he says. Mohan's mother Usha, who has been listening, says it was not true that children are not employed. "My Monu has been working since the age of eight." There are other children too who are seen working and so the jamaadar cannot deny this, she asserts..

Rishi, 20, a local youth, remembers working in the kilns ever since he was a child. Rohtas Kumar and his friend are also kiln workers. Their job, like that of Mohan's, involves the digging up of earth and cutting it up to fit in brick moulds. The only difference is they are older and they are graduates from Baghpat in Uttar Pradesh. There are no jobs for the likes of us, they say. "A mazdoor (labourer) is always majboor (helpless)," Rohtas Kumar says. "The Prime Minister talks about a new India in the making. But where is it?" he asks.

The people working in the kilns belong mainly to the Scheduled Castes or Other Backward Classes. They belong to the world of the landless.

Although a good number of local people work in the kilns, the majority of the workforce comes from Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Punjab and Bihar. "The kiln owners, who are Jats, are like feudal lords," says Dharamvir of the Lal Jhanda Bhatta Mazdoor Union, an affiliate of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU).

Kamala and husband Nadram Dhaanak.-

Brick-making involves four stages of work, and in these kilns there is almost a regional division of labour. The first is pathai, digging of the earth and wetting it, done by the workforce from Uttar Pradesh. The next step, bharai or filling mud in moulds is done by local workers and workers from Punjab. The third step jalai or baking, is done by workers from Bihar or Uttar Pradesh. Workers from Rajasthan are involved in the fourth stage of work, which is nikasee, removing the baked bricks and loading on to carts.

Brick-making activity begins in October and goes on until June or until the onset of the monsoon. The work, when suspended, creates joblessness. Some workers find farm work but not everyone is lucky.

The workers never find work at the same kiln twice. All kinds of harassment are meted out at the kiln, they say. Apart from making the workers work for 12-14 hours a day, employers are known to harass workers by destroying the wet mould and denying them payment for the work already done. "My husband had high fever and I had no money. I sent Mohan to borrow Rs.100 from the accountant and he refused to give any money," said Usha.

The employers are in no better condition. They say that the brick business is not doing well. There has not been much of a demand for bricks from the government, which used to be one of their main clients, as government construction work has declined. Dharamvir says "the closure of government departments has had a cascading effect." Narang says, "Cement is preferred now for building construction as well as road-laying. Even private builders have started using cement columns. For a 10-storey building, I used to supply 10 lakh bricks. Now the demand has come down to a lakh and a half." As the demand has declined, the wages had to be cut, he says.

Ram Kishen Pratap is an agricultural worker-turned-brick-kiln worker. He is involved in baking and is seen using rubber as a fuel. The air is thick with black smoke and the pungent smell of burning rubber. He wears no gloves, no protection for his eyes and mouth. The owner of the kiln, who is from Punjab, argues that the burning takes place under the kiln and the fumes escape through the furnace. But this is not true. The workers do inhale the smoke.

A young worker takes a break from the non-stop work at a brick-kiln.-

"The government rate is Rs.2,500 a month for eight hours of work a day but we are paid Rs.2,300 for 12 hours," says Ram Kishen. Workers doing jalai seem to hail from Pratapgarh. Their families live in shacks at the entrance to the kiln. Like the children of construction workers, their children too move from kiln to kiln.

Prakash Chandra Garg used to own several kilns in "partnership". Now he has only one. He admits there are no facilities for the kiln workers. There is even a shortage of drinking water. "In Kalanaur, water is supplied once in two days," he says.

THE workers, as in any other unorganised sector, are not registered. There are no records of their employment (they do not have ration cards). The work is seasonal and therefore the relationship between the owner and the worker ends with the season. The workers do not get any benefit, including those ensuing from enactments such as the Minimum Wages Act, the Employees Insurance Act and the Maternity Benefit Act. It was only after a protracted struggle in the 1990s that brick-kiln owners were forced to concede a decent minimum wage. However, where union presence is limited, owners violate the wage norms. The government is supposed to upgrade the rates from time to time but is reluctant to do so. Said Satbir Singh, founder-president of the Brick-Kiln Workers Union: "The brick kiln industry is covered under the Provident Fund Act but there are large-scale violations. Even basic facilities are not provided to these workers. Women are beaten up by farmers if they defecate in the fields." He said the owners were reluctant to implement the minimum wages revised by the Haryana government. Only one section of the workers, the ones engaged in baking, receive monthly wages, the rest being paid at piece rate, he said.

The size of the informal sector is expected to increase as more and more people are getting pushed from the organised to the unorganised sector. The Indian National Lok Dal (INLD), a constituent of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government at the Centre, is in power in the State in alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party. As such there is not much difference between the policies of the Central and the State governments.

Already several Rohtas Kumars, educated and unemployed, are out in the market in search of jobs. Their ranks are expected to swell as government departments close down or get privatised. For instance, the closure of the Minor Irrigation and Tubewell Corporation in Haryana resulted in the retrenchment of nearly 4,000 persons. The closure of the Cooperative Spinning Mill at Hansi affected 1,500 workers directly and hundreds indirectly. Similarly, in the Public Health Department, several sub-departments were closed down; 27 employment exchanges were shut down and nearly 28 Municipal Committees were declared redundant in the past five years. The Haryana Electricity Board, which had 52,000 employees in 1991, has now only 27,000 employees after it was converted into a corporation. The per unit cost of electricity went up and the establishment costs increased, but the number of employees went down. There is, of course, a world of prosperity in Haryana, that of the high-rise buildings, the call centres and the shopping malls of Gurgaon. But it is the world of a few.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor