Kilns of bondage

Published : Jul 17, 2009 00:00 IST

At Reddypalayam village near Chengalpattu in Kancheepuram district. Brick workers live in thatched huts close to the kiln.-A. MURALITHARAN

At Reddypalayam village near Chengalpattu in Kancheepuram district. Brick workers live in thatched huts close to the kiln.-A. MURALITHARAN

IN the brick kilns of Tamil Nadu, life for lakhs of men, women and children is one of extreme exploitation. Every brick they make has a story to tell of dismal working conditions, back-breaking toil for 12 to 16 hours a day, meagre wages and generations of bonded labour.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has put these narratives in perspective in its report Forced Labour: Facts and Figures/The Cost of Coercion-Regional Perspectives released on May 11. About the situation in Tamil Nadus brick industry, it says: [B]onded labourers, and sometimes their families, lose their freedom to choose employment through a system of loans or advance payments for work.

Most of these workers are from families that have for generations toiled in brick units in different parts of the State and are not aware of their rights or the welfare measures the State and Central governments offer them. The vicious cycle of debt begins when the rural farmhand migrates to a distant place and finds work in a brick kiln through middlemen known as maistries. He accepts an advance amount offered by the kiln owner not realising that in the process he was trading away his freedom. By the time he does it is too late, as he is tied to the kiln in perpetual bondage. Incidentally, the maistries, who are part of the workforce, play an important role in the disbursement of the advances and weekly wages to the workers.

In response to the ILO report, the departments concerned of the State government and the Centre and six Central trade unions have initiated action to end the debt bondage of brick kiln workers. To begin with, the focus is on Kattangolathur block in Kancheepuram district, where 12,000 kiln workers and their families are being made aware of their rights, their children are being sent to school and they are being given the benefits of welfare schemes.

In the absence of any comprehensive official data on the number of brick kilns and the workers they employ, analysts depend on surveys conducted by private agencies or non-governmental organisations (NGOs). According to informed sources, in Tamil Nadu there are around 2,000 brick kilns both registered and unregistered in the big and medium categories, apart from thousands of units making country bricks in the tiny sector.

Dalits and members of the Scheduled Tribes constitute around 90 per cent of the workers and the remaining 10 per cent belong to the Backward Classes or the Most Backward Classes. Tiruvallur and Kancheepuram districts have a high concentration of brick workers, including child workers. They go there from Dharmapuri, Namakkal, Krishnagiri, Villupuram, Cuddalore, Tiruvannamalai, Madurai, Virudhunagar and Tirunelveli districts every year during the season, which lasts from January to July.

A. Mahaboob Batcha, managing trustee of the Society for Community Organisation (SOCO) Trust, blamed the agrarian crisis and industrial backwardness for the large-scale migration of people from the southern districts in search of work. The trend could not be reversed without proper planning and implementation of job schemes for the rural poor, particularly farm workers, he said.

The most important factor that makes the workers and their children vulnerable to bondage is the advance paid to migrant workers, who then pledge their labour to the owners of kilns. It is a common practice in the industry and the amount ranges from Rs.5,000 to Rs.40,000.

Both employers and workers believe that the advance system fosters mutual trust. But experts point out that it not only makes workers vulnerable to bondage but also pushes them into the quagmire of perpetual indebtedness. An ILO-funded study conducted by an Indo-French research team of the French Institute of Pondicherry in 2003-04 dubs the system a vicious circle and says that the characteristics of the production process (a continuous and cyclic process, highly intensive in terms of labour force) explain in large part the need for this advance system. Importantly, it enables the kiln owners to employ migrants, who cannot leave the kilns until they have repaid the advance fully. The workers are given the advance not only before they are recruited but also during the off season to ensure that they continue in the same kiln in the next season.

Unionisation of brick kiln workers at the local level, thanks to the intervention of the NGO Sarpam Irular Thozhilalar Sangam, helped release brick workers from bondage at Palavansathu village in Vellore taluk and at a few villages in Arcot taluk in Vellore district during the past three years. However, some of them were yet to be compensated fully, said I. Jeyabalan, leader of the union.

The piece-rate remuneration is not commensurate with the hard work that the skilled workers put in during the seven stages of the brick-making process, said trade union sources. The seven stages include heaping, gathering and mixing of clay soil; moulding of bricks; edge cutting; transporting the dried bricks to the baking yard; and baking the bricks.

Apart from low wages and curtailed mobility, the workers, both men and women, are subjected to harassment in various ways, alleged trade union activists. Most of the workers were reluctant to narrate their tales of woe fearing the brick kiln owners and the maistries.

P. Selvi, one of the 15 bonded labourers at Palavansathu village released from a brick kiln in Vellore district in March 2006, said she, along with her son P. Kumaran, was detained at a house in the village for 29 days on the grounds that she tried to flee the workplace without repaying the advance she had taken. The house was locked and even for attending natures call they had to be at the mercy of the watchman who had the key.

K. Gopi of Mandhangal village was among a set of bonded workers of the Irular tribe to be freed at Oothukottai taluk in Tiruvallur district in February 2008. He said they had to face the wrath of the kiln owners for seeking their help to trace the missing eight-year-old daughter of a worker.

According to M. Nagarajan, president of the Sengal Aruvai Thozhilalar Munnetra Sangam at Paramakudi in Ramanathapuram district, at some places, including Achangulam village in the district, intolerant employers would belabour workers with sticks if they committed any act of indiscipline. Abuses were heaped on women workers. Such punishments were awarded to frighten other workers, he said. In some cases, the workers who had received excess advance amount were kept under lock and key at night, he alleged.

Though some employers claimed that the workers were not forced to toil for long hours, interaction with workers and union activists revealed that in most of the brick chambers work started at around 3 p.m. and went on up to 7 p.m. After a break of six hours, work resumed at 1 a.m. and went on until 10.30 a.m. The bricks need maximum time of exposure to the sun to render them dried. Thus, the workers have to catch up with their sleep only during the day and this is a routine for the brick-moulding community. These cycles of work interfere with the normal development of the children.

In one of the worst instances of harassment, N. Rangasamy, 50, belonging to the Irular tribe of Siruvalai village in Villupuram district, was beaten up and chained by the employer of a brick unit because his daughter and son-in-law had abruptly stopped working in his kiln in January 2003. The employer was arrested under the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (prevention of atrocities) Act, 1989, and various sections of the Indian Penal Code, thanks to the intervention of the Pazhangudi Irular Padhukappu Sangam (PIPS).

A distressing aspect of the brick workers story is the plight of the children. According to a study conducted in 2005 by two NGOs, Pasumai Trust of Tiruvallur and the Chennai-based Peoples Forum for Human Rights, over one lakh children in the six to 18 age group were employed in brick kilns in the State. Of them, 60,000 were in the six to 14 age group and they worked along with their parents.

Though some political activists and official sources dub these data exaggerated, NGO functionaries and experts concur that almost 80 per cent of the children of the migrant workers do not go to school and many of them help their parents in the work, performing tasks such as arranging the bricks for drying and collecting the broken and improperly moulded bricks. Several others, particularly girls, do babysitting at shelters.

As the work is clearly given to the families, children have a great propensity towards getting involved in the work to supplement parents income. This is not done owing to the pressure of the employers but the system operates in such a manner that children become natural partners in the process of brick production, says a study titled Rapid Appraisal of Vulnerability of Workers to Bondage Situations in Brick Kiln Sector in Tamil Nadu-2008. It was undertaken by PRAXIS (Institute for Participatory Practices) India in Tiruvallur and Kancheepuram districts last year.

Dr C.S. Rex Sargunam, president of the Tamil Nadu Health Development Association and former Director of the Institute of Child Health, said the children of migrant workers were prone to a range of illnesses, including allergic bronchitis and skin allergy, as they were exposed to heat and dust. Water-borne diseases such as dysentery and jaundice may also be prevalent if there was the risk of contamination of water. The malnourished children of brick workers were susceptible to anaemia and vitamin deficiencies, he said. Setting up noon-meal centres and balwadis near the place of work could go a long way in alleviating some of these health problems, he added.

Highlighting the travails of brick workers in the brick industry, Malathi Chittibabu, State secretary of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), referred to the unique system adopted by kiln owners of offering jobs and advance payment only to pairs and not to individual workers. In some areas, this resulted in the early marriage of girls, she said.

PRAXIS in its rapid appraisal observed that girls got married as early as 12 years onwards and boys get married as early as 16 years onwards. It stated: Early marriages are related to the work environment that needs pairs of workers to work in tandem. To access work opportunities, boys and girls get married at an early age. In most families, the indebtedness to local moneylenders and advances from employers has been transferred to the young generation in case the parents get sick and are unable to work, and such pressure leads to marriage and work in similar establishments. Insecurity of unmarried girls to work in such establishments is another reason for the girls to opt for early marriages. However, there is a view among the workers that early marriages are no longer prevalent now.

Pon. Kumar, Chairman of the Tamil Nadu Construction Welfare Board, admitted that bonded labour and child labour were prevalent in brick manufacturing units in the State. He promised to initiate measures to ensure that these illegal systems were eliminated, that the children were sent to balwadis or schools according to their age and that statutory benefits such as Employees State Insurance (ESI), Provident Fund (PF) and accident relief were extended to the workers after enrolling them as members of the welfare board. He added that steps would be taken to implement a scheme to provide assistance to the workers, through the kiln owners, during the off season.

K. Murthy, State adviser of the Tamil Nadu Socialist Unorganised Workers Union, sought urgent measures to implement the State governments order G.O. MS.75, 2005 enabling migrant workers to receive essential articles, including rice, under the public distribution system (PDS) by using their ration cards. The non-implementation of the order came in the way of migrant workers making use of the Re.1-a-kg-rice scheme, he said.

According to him, in Tiruvallur district alone around 25,000 children work in brick kilns. Lack of balwadis near the work spot resulted in the older children becoming babysitters, he claimed. Workers lived in 6 x 8 rooms in unventilated thatched huts, without toilets, put up near the workplace. The workers in general and women in particular faced problems owing to the lack of adequate health facilities near the brick chambers, Murthy said.

But kiln owners project a rosy picture. According to K. Manoharan, secretary of the Chengalpattu Area Brick Manufacturers Association, bonded labour and child labour are absent in the sector. Admitting that migrant labourers were employed in the brick industry in Kancheepuram district, he said almost 80 per cent of the workers employed in his kiln belonged to Tirunelveli district and the remaining 20 per cent were from the adjacent Villupuram district.

He claimed that the owners by and large were transparent in providing the advance money to workers and in the weekly payment of wages for work done on a piece-rate basis. He called for urgent steps by the government to remove the anomalies in the payment of wages and the duration of the season in different parts of the State. The association, along with the ILO and government agencies, was doing its best to persuade workers to send their children to school, he said.

M. Nagarajan demanded a reasonable revision of the minimum wage from the present Rs.221.78 for harvesting 1,000 chamber bricks and Rs.166.41 for 1,000 country bricks. He alleged that there was a deliberate deduction in the number of bricks produced, at the rate of 70 bricks for 1,000 bricks, on the grounds of compensating for faulty bricks. The employers, who insured the products, should not penalise workers for damages to bricks because of rain or other factors, he said.

Meanwhile, Principal Secretary (Labour and Employment) T. Prabhakara Rao said the State government would extend all support, including provision of manpower, to the project initiated by the ILO to ensure brick workers welfare. Poverty alleviation programmes and income-generating projects would be extended to these migrant workers, he added.

Referring to the awareness programme launched recently by the government in this regard, he sought the cooperation of all the stakeholders, including representatives of trade unions and employers federations, to make it a success.

The inadequacy of the governments measures so far can be gauged from the fact that only 1,202 members of the seven Brick Workers Cooperative Societies under the Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises Department have benefited. The paid-up share capital of these societies was Rs.8.08 lakh, including the governments share of Rs.2.25 lakh, trade union sources said. These societies were formed with the main objective of providing continuous and gainful employment to brick workers.

It was against this backdrop that the ILO took the initiative to improve the lot of the brick kiln workers. It identified 12,000 workers employed in Kattangolathur block to implement a three-pronged strategy of creating awareness on labour rights, implementing welfare schemes to help them and their families to come out of poverty, and ensuring that their children were sent to school, said Maria Sathya R., national programme manager of the ILOs Decent Work for All.

Supporting it in this endeavour are the State and Central governments and the joint action forum of Central trade unions, including the CITU, the Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC), the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC), the Hind Mazdoor Sabha (HMS), the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS), and the Labour Progressive Federation (LPF). Among the stakeholders were the district administration and the employers associations, she added.

The initiative would explore the possibility of replacing the present advance payment system with new transparent systems of recruitment and payment of uniform wages. Workplace improvement was another focus area. The workers would be trained and organised in unions so that they gain knowledge in holding negotiations with employers and arriving at settlements on their demands. Apart from enrolling them with the Tamil Nadu Construction Workers Welfare Board, they would be covered under the Life Insurance Corporation of Indias Janashree Bima Yojana scheme and steps would be taken to enable them to get jobs under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) when they return to their villages during the off season.

A survey conducted by the ILO in Kattangolathur block last year led to the re-enrolment of 174 out-of-school children in regular schools. Besides, 948 children were sent to 39 tuition centres at the workplaces. The honorarium for the teacher-volunteer at these centres, at the rate of Rs.2,000 per person, is borne by the employers. Apart from this, the government runs 20 summer education centres under the Sarva Siksha Abhiyan (SSA) for three months at the workplaces. This year, a total of 460 children are attending the classes at the venues, where the noon meal is provided by the employers association and the cost of study materials and payment for SSA volunteers training is met by the ILO and the government. As and when these children returned to their villages, they would be enrolled in regular schools, Maria Sathya said.

T.R.S. Mani, State secretary of the AITUC, is not sure about the success of the ILO initiative. He said: Though the trade unions have taken the plunge, along with the ILO and the government agencies, it remains to be seen what impact the programme has on the lives of thousands of migrant brick workers.

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