For a metro man on the move, Rs. 277 after all may mean a Subway’s signature sub but for many of the poor migrant labourers from Odisha like Kali Mahji slogging in brick kilns skirting the city, it is a dream minimum wage that eluded them for years. Mahji working in a kiln in Dundigal could realise his dream recently and take home Rs.7,000 calculated at Rs. 277 for making 1,000 bricks thanks to a persistent effort of the Solidarity Committee, NGO Prayas and intervention by Ranga Reddy district Collector. The Committee and the NGO took on the powerful lobby of brick kiln owners who kept thwarting attempts to extend a fair wage to these labourers. Almost turning into mafia, the owners were mocking at the State and its labour laws.
The payment of such wage is a first in several years. Poverty and deprivation force Mahji and others literally sell themselves and take long arduous journey from Jhangripalli village in Bolangir district in Odisha to brick kilns around city every year. Sell themselves because they are brought here in “units” of seven to nine persons including men, women and children after paying advance of about Rs. 50,000 to each unit.
They would work in the kilns in pathetic conditions for six months from November to April and get back to farming that is if the rain God shows mercy. Otherwise with no work it is struggle for survival and often starving to death. The brick owners know this and they exploit them to the hilt. “We have no alternative but to come here and slog for 18 hours a day to feed ourselves,” said a frail looking Mahji.
There was suspense and drama before they were paid the wages due to them. Though the brick making activity normally ends in April and wages settled, the owner threatened and made them work till May end to fulfil the orders on hand. Exhausted, Mahji and eight others of his batch ran away to Secunderabad railway station but realised they had no money.
Prayas team came to their rescue and shifted them to M V Foundation’s hostel and represented their case yet again to the Collector. The breakthrough came at a meeting organised at the instance of the Collector and the wage jumped from Rs. 180 for making 1,000 bricks to Rs. 277 and Rs. 150 for loading them, a final settlement of Rs. 67,000 for the unit. “We have come this far and we need to continue the struggle to see that all workers get similar wages”, said Sudhir Katiyar of Prayas.