Despite laws demanding abolition of bonded labour, brick kilns remain outside the ambit of rules and continue to exploit labour

For 15 long years Karam Singh from Taran Taran district in Punjab used to convince individuals and families looking for work to become bonded labourers in brick kilns.

“I used to bring 30 families a year to Baba Deep Singh Brick Kiln,” the former agent announces proudly. But when he was cheated of his commission and even the labourers did not receive the wages they were promised, he began to have doubts. The owner’s continued abuse of him when he asked for a fair share proved to be too much for him and he moved over to the ‘other side’. Today, it’s been 20 years since he has been connecting labourers to unions and organising workers. He is now associated with Anti-Slavery International and Volunteers for Social Justice (VSJ).

A field study conducted by Centre for Education and Communication and VSJ indicates that in Amritsar, Ferozpur and Taran Taran in Punjab, 94 per cent of all workers (Pathers, Jalais, Bharais and Nikasis) took advance and among Pathers (moulders), everyone took advance. More than 35 per cent took an amount higher than Rs 50,000. Most of them said that they could not repay the advance at the end of the season. This debt bondage is justified by saying that it is compulsory to take advance, advance is repaid against wages and a substantial amount is deducted. There is no clear documentation of advance taken, work done and the loan repayment; workers get only a weekly payment, so low that they cannot manage daily requirements without taking loan again; workers do not get minimum wages; workers cannot leave the job in a particular kiln and take in another till the advances are paid off; workers are compelled to go as dictated by the Jamadar from whom they have taken advance, in the next season.

Charan Singh (name changed) has been pledging his life to brick kiln owners for the past 45 years now to earn his daily bread and feed his family. This sort of forced labour, which is defined by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) as all involuntary work or service exacted under the menace of a penalty, is the last bet for poor and marginalised people in this country to be a part of the ‘dignified workforce’ and participate in the economy. After 45 years and hard labour in hot and dangerous conditions in lawless brick kilns Charan Singh has accumulated a debt of Rs 50,000 on his head, repaying which seems not just a remote possibility but impossibility. If he dies without repaying it, a male member of his family, even a child, will automatically be recruited by the brick kiln owners to extract the debt.

Social activist Jai Singh, who has been working with bonded labourers in Punjab for several years now, says that the priority is to assure rights for the workers, at par with the factory workers.

“We do want an abolition of the bonded labour practise. But what will these labourers do once they leave the kilns? This is the only work they know. Therefore, we want the government to safeguard their rights as workers first, give access to entitlements and ensure appropriate working conditions,” he says.

Organisations working with kiln workers are raising issues of over time wage for workers who are working 16 hour days, maternity benefits for women and education for children who are working there. “The entire family works in a brick kiln for an advance, but then only one person gets a payment – so are all the family members bonded or are they free to migrate?”

They are demanding effective implementation of Bonded Labour System Abolition Act 1976 by way of identification, release and rehabilitation of bonded labourers. They are also asking for registration of brick kilns under Factories Act, 1948 to ensure an adherence to labour laws in the kilns relating to wages, industrial dispute and welfare.

Given that 97 per cent of the workers are from the scheduled castes (particularly Valmiki and Majhabi Sikh, Chamar, Muslims and converted Christians in Punjab), there is a need for the applicability of the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. Lastly accountability, given that India is signatory to international human rights Conventions and a founding member of ILO.

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