Haryana: The grim reality of brick kiln labourers - Hindustan Times
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Haryana: The grim reality of brick kiln labourers

Feb 26, 2022 07:44 PM IST

There was no work between March 2021 and February 2022 in the brick kiln. So, the workers earned nothing in that time because they are paid on a piece-work basis.

March 24 will mark the anniversary of the prime minister’s broadcast which launched the first lockdown aimed at curbing the spread of the coronavirus. The nation was only given four hours’ notice of the lockdown, and panic ensued. Because transport services were suspended, thousands of migrant workers started to walk home. Some of them faced journeys of more than 1,000 kilometres. The great exodus from cities showed the insecurity of the lives of migrant workers and the scant security that the State provides them.

Kailash Satyarthi shared the Nobel Peace Prize for his campaigns against the exploitation of children, but children still work alongside their parents in brick kilns. (AP/Representative Image) PREMIUM
Kailash Satyarthi shared the Nobel Peace Prize for his campaigns against the exploitation of children, but children still work alongside their parents in brick kilns. (AP/Representative Image)

Some migrant workers get no security from the State. Among them are the migrant brick kiln workers who live amid the forest of tall chimneys belching smoke between Badri and Jhajjar in Haryana, one of India’s most prosperous states. The state’s chief minister recently announced a measure protecting jobs for citizens of Haryana, but he provides no protection for the brick kiln migrants. I reported on their plight about three years ago and I went back recently to see how they had survived the lockdowns.

The brick kilns are antiquated, and their business model is dependent on a plentiful supply of cheap labour. As soon as I got out of my car, a group of men, women and children, who mould bricks by hand and lay them out to dry before baking, gathered. They came from Gaya district in Bihar. One small boy had no trousers, and a girl was playing with a dead mouse. The workers were housed in hovels with barely any room to stand up in. The walls, made of loose bricks, bulged dangerously. The tin roofs trapped the heat. The workers told me there was one hand-pump for 100 families, and there was no drinking water and lavatories. They live in these miserable conditions because there is no work in Gaya.

There was no work between March 2021 and February 2022 in the brick kiln. So, the workers earned nothing in that time because they are paid on a piece-work basis.

This means that the government’s minimum wage provides no protection for them. They said that during the lockdown, each family was given 1,000 every 15 days to buy food, but that money will be deducted from their earnings when they are paid, which will not be until the end of the season. And, 1,000 doesn’t go as far as it should because their ration cards are registered in Bihar and they don’t know about the new provision making the cards transferable.

When I asked whether government officials came to ask about their welfare, they replied, “Officials come, but they only speak to the munshi (manager) they don’t meet us.” The munshi was present throughout my interview, but he never contradicted the workers.

The only encouraging development I saw this time was a large group of children sitting on the ground under a tree being taught by a young woman. She was not a government teacher. She came from a civil society institution.

How can it be that those tall chimneys are still a blot on the Haryana landscape? Why is manufacturing so heavily dependent on exploited labourers who are effectively bonded to survive? There have been campaigns against child labour and bonded labour ever since I can remember.

An Indian, Kailash Satyarthi, shared the Nobel Peace Prize for his campaigns against the exploitation of children, but children still work alongside their parents in brick kilns. There are laws regulating the employment of migrant workers, but they are not enforced. Do the brick- kilns survive because of the corruption and lassitude of India’s bloated inspector raj? Are the brick kiln workers perhaps ignored because they are not voters in Haryana?

Then again maybe the renowned linguist, philosopher, and social activist, Noam Chomsky, was right when he said, “What is striking in India is the indifference of the privileged.”

The views expressed are personal

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