Bonded to bricks – Hyderabad’s brick kiln workers

Migrant workers work in the real estate flourishing highways of Hyderabad at less than minimum wage with no option to the grueling bonded labour.


Hidden off Exit 05 of the swanky multi-lane expressway of the Nehru Outer Ring Road, lies the village of Dundigal, a small village in Ranga Reddy District known for the Air Force Academy and engineering colleges present nearby. Real-estate ads proclaiming “Dundigal Paradise” and villas and the like are abound on the roads leading to Dundigal from Hyderabad. Lying rather unnoticed, are a cluster of brick-kilns, numbering anywhere between 100 to 150, all located within a few kms radius of the Dundigal village. These kilns employ a total of around 10,000 to 15000 people, all migrant workers, ranging from teenagers to septuagenarians, from nursing mothers to grand-mothers, whose lives and livelihoods end up being contracted to their workplaces in more ways than one could imagine.

The Nehru ORR Highway – Hyderabad’s Pride. Dream factories sell Hyderabad, Bengaluru and Mumbai as game-changing livelihood destinations for these migrant workers. Little do they know their dreams often turn into fly-ash.

Every kiln employs around 15-20 families which live in shanties propped up by probably the very bricks they help make. Most of these families hail from Western Orissa, Chhattisgarh and Nanded (Maharashtra) and are often brought together only by their partial knowledge of the local language Telugu and their desperation to seek jobs of any kind. Lack of work options force them to take loans in their hometowns ( interest-free though, and providing a little respite from local usurious money-lenders) which are then repaid by working in these kilns throughout the brick-making season (typically from Dec to June) with little or no wages.

One of the many brick-kilns near Dundigal village. Almost all these kilns make only fly-ash bricks, the more environmentally polluting and cheaper variety.

Minimum Wage? What’s that?

Some workers I met said they get paid around Rs. 10000 to Rs 12000 per head, as advance payments in their village from recruiting agents. From then onwards, till the end of the brick-making season, they get paid only a food-allowance of Rs. 200/head/week. Sometimes, if they are lucky, they get paid a certain amount as balance, at the end of their season, but often times, they get paid nothing. One worker from Kalahandi, Orissa, claimed that he, along with 2 others in his family, makes 3000 bricks every day. Even a conservative estimate of 500 bricks being made by a person in a day brings the total amount due to him every month to be (the minimum wage of around Rs. 360 per 1000 bricks and 26 working days in a month) Rs. 4680. His expected pay at the end of 6 months would be Rs. 28080.

However, the ground reality is much different. They get paid only Rs. 200 per 1000 bricks. At this rate, their pay (calculated for 6 months of work, 26 days a month) comes down to (100*26*6) = 15600. Even after adding the weekly food allowance of Rs. 200, the total payment for 6 months comes only to (Rs. 15600 + Rs. 4800 =) Rs. 20400 – Almost Rs. 8000 (around 29% ) lesser than what they are due. Considering that most workers get only the initial advance of Rs. 12000 and the weekly food allowances that mount to Rs. 4800 for 6 months, they get almost Rs. 12000 lesser that what they are due (around 42% lesser than their due)

Women, in contrast to most construction sites, seem to get paid on par with their male counterparts in these kilns. Conditions are often oppressive though. Workplace harassment and domestic abuse is rampant.

Employee records and wage records are non-existent at the kilns. 12-15 hour workdays and armed goons manning the kiln premises at all times make it impossible for the kiln workers to work anywhere else. The supervisors make nightly visits, after everybody’s fallen asleep and peep into every tent or shanty, to ensure nobody has fled the premises.

We were told by a couple of workers that if somebody else they knew had fled the oppressive conditions of these kilns, it was their turn to pay – with physical torture. However, such are their financial conditions, that most people end up coming back again for the next season – sometimes to the same kiln, sometimes to another one. There’s always been a demand for cheap, uncomplaining labour. This brick-kiln model has been existent for at least three decades, and not much has changed even after India started “Shining” more than a decade back. The real-estate industry might be thriving, but the money clearly does not trickle down to the bricks and mortar of this business.

Advance Payments – What the Law Says?

According to The Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976, “bonded labour system” means the system of forced, or partly forced, labour under which a debtor enters, or has, or is presumed to have, entered, into an agreement with the creditor to the effect that in consideration of an advance obtained by him or by any of his lineal ascendants or descendants (whether or not such advance is evidenced by any document) and in consideration of the interest, if any, on such advance, or…(among other things) he would(among other things) forfeit the freedom of employment or other means of livelihood for a specified period or for an unspecified period,or forfeit the right to move freely throughout the territory of India, or forfeit the right to appropriate or sell at market value any of his property or product of his labour or the labour of a member of his family….

The brick-kiln system as is in vogue in most places in India fits the textbook definition of this act – a bonded labour system which, as of the implementation of this act in 1976, should stand abolished.

The reality, as always, makes us fools.

The situation at the Hyderabad brick-kilns is far from an isolated one. Bonded labour, refusal to pay even the minimum wages due, and in some cases, any wages at all, abusive employers and frequent intimidation – the situation is the same at brick-kilns all over India, be it TamilNadu, Gujarat, Rajasthan or Andhra Pradesh. The International Labour Organization in a report released in May 2009 which briefly touched upon the bonded-labour type system prevalent in brick-kilns in TamilNadu, had this to say about bonded labour – “bonded labourers, and sometimes their families, lose their freedom to choose employment through a system of loans or advance payments for work.”

This old man, well past sixty, has just begun working in A.P’s brick-kilns, coming here just 6 months ago. One can only guess what drove him to come here at this stage of his life.

Bonded Labour, Bounded Lives

The odour of fly-ash hits you even when while some distance away from the kiln. Some workers wear the safety glasses provided by their owners, but most people do not. Kids not yet old enough to work, run around, and then stop when they see me. Fascinated by my camera, they pose, blissfully, as only kids can do. A girl who looks about 10 yrs old makes chappatis for her family. All the families live right next to the kilns. They have to. They are forced to. The premises lack even basic amenities such as a bathroom for women, with many of them taking bath in the open, unmindful of our presence in the vicinity.

Despite growing up in these kilns, a lot of kids know how to read and write in Oriya, thanks to Sarva Shiksha Abhiayan schools.

It is no surprise that illnesses abound in the kilns – lung infections, throat infections, upper-respiratory problems, eye problems. The workers did admit that the owners got them medicines and/or took them to nearby hospitals, as and when necessary. Some owners have even arranged for Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan schools at the premises, bringing in Oriya teachers to teach the smaller kids. Despite the mid-day meals due to the kids at these schools not always being a certainty, they are crumbs of comfort to cling to. While it is unclear whether kids under 15  work in these kilns, child-labour has been reported in various kilns in Rajasthan.

Dundigal hosts the weekly Sunday market, the only day of the week when they are permitted to even step out of the kiln premises . Several hundreds descend onto a couple of small lanes to buy their weekly supplies, an activity quite essential to keep the local economy going. The local residents do not work in the kilns due to the poor remuneration, but run all the shops – from the streetside vendors to the doctors and the grocers, and most of their customers come from these kilns.

Unbreakable bonds – This man, hailing from Orissa, has worked in brick-kilns for almost 20 years now, and has been working in his current kiln for almost 6 years.

Coming Together, Against Odds

“If all of us unite and demand higher wages, we will get it”

“Only if the wages increase, will our stomachs get filled”

“There is not much work available at my native-place in Orissa and we face a lot of financial difficulties. So I come here to work every year”

“I do not want to work here anymore. Please help me get back to Orissa”

These are just samples of what the kiln workers expressed when they assembled near the Dundigal bus stand on Feb 25th 2013 for the inaugural meeting of the Brick-Kiln Worker’s Union, Ranga Reddy District Committee. The union meeting , being organized despite enormous pressure to desist from various brick-kiln owners, saw around 250 people turn up, some even with their infant kids. They came there with hope. They also came with apprehension. They had been intimidated and abused far too many times for demanding unpaid wages.

Efforts to organize the kiln workers in Hyderabad have been afoot for some time now. In 2012, activists from Action AID, Praayas Centre for Labour Research and Action (who had successfully helped brick-kiln workers in other states unionize) and some concerned individuals organized a huge meeting of over 1500 workers, and even got the District Collector and the Labour Department to visit the kilns. Tri-partite meetings between the kiln owners, the union organizers and the concerned Govt. officials took place, resulting in the passing of a Government Order (GO) to increase the wages being paid to the workers.

However, the brick-making season ended before the G.O could even be followed up on to ensure implementation on the ground. With official pressure off their backs, the owners ganged up and beat up A. Krishna , the primary organizer, in an effort to intimidate and end his “rabble-rousing” efforts.

But the organizers came back again this year, with more support coming from students and staff of local universities. They visited multiple kilns to talk to the workers and see the conditions for themselves. They also rescued workers who had had enough of this bonded labour and wanted to get back to their native towns. However, the primary sentiment going around the kilns, and one that was expressed even during the union meeting, was that most of the workers would prefer continuing with their current jobs if their wages were increased. If their work conditions were not so abusive.

Fiery speeches and lusty sloganeering kept the meeting going for quite a few hours. More than 200 people attended the first brick-kiln workers union meeting in Dundigal, conducted on Feb 25th 2013.

The meeting saw a multitude of voices take centre stage. They belonged to labour activists, trade union members, human rights advocates and High Court lawyers. Some spoke about the legal obligations of the owners to their workers with respect to the Minimum Wage Act, Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act and the Bonded Labour Abolition Act, while some spoke about fundamental human rights.

The voices also belonged to the people themselves – the workers, who put their fears aside to share their experiences, good and bad. Before the end of the day, another worker was rescued from an abusive owner, one who was actually beating him up inside the kiln premises even as the meeting was going on just a few kms away. 13 other men, along with this rescued worker, have expressed a desire to go back to Orissa, their homeland. They could take it no longer.

For Minimum Wage and a Life Worth Living

The organizers have persevered, against odds. Against threats of bodily harm. The workers have responded, disregarding efforts to clamp down on these efforts by owners. Some even after suffering bodily harm. The union registration application has been filed, and is now only a matter of time before it gets fully registered and acknowledged.

On March 17th, a team of 8 volunteers (who were instrumental in setting up the union) investigating a brick-kiln where workers had allegedly been ill-treated, were beaten up violently by various brick-kiln owners and threatened with dire consequences if they were to return to these kilns. Details can be seen here.

The battle for minimum wages and a decent living for these thousands of people is well and truly on.

Pics: Karthik Ranganathan 


  ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Karthik Ranganathan works in a semiconductor company in Bangalore. He is passionate about issues such as natural learning, unconditional parenting, human rights and environmentalism and spends his spare time volunteering with the Association for India's Development(www.aidindia.org). He also likes to pop up in random seminars and workshops conducted around Bangalore with his camera. He loves to wr... more

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  ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Karthik Ranganathan works in a semiconductor company in Bangalore. He is passionate about issues such as natural learning, unconditional parenting, human rights and environmentalism and spends his spare time volunteering with the Association for India's Development(www.aidindia.org). He also likes to pop up in random seminars and workshops conducted around Bangalore with his camera. He loves to wr... more
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  • Shantanu

    Very well written, Karthik! And all of that summarised in one metaphorical statement ” The real-estate industry might be thriving, but the money clearly does
    not trickle down to the bricks and mortar of this business.”

  • Rv nirmaan

    very excellent story about the bricks of hyderabad.Thanks for sharing this article Apartments in Kondapur