Brick kiln industry in Pakistan. By Sohail Yousaf


I was enjoying tea-time when Sagar, one of my children, rushed towards me and announced happily, “Papa we got another holiday on May 1st on account of Labour Day!” Then my other kids and wife laughed happily because they are going to enjoy three holidays in a week: Saturday, Sunday and Monday. Not only in Pakistan is May 1 an international holiday on account of it being Labour Day, the day is celebrated all over the world in the memory of the Chicago incident. Our city is becoming more and more beautiful day by day due to its beautiful and sky-touching buildings. In winter or summer, we sit peacefully in our homes and offices, or enjoy ourselves in hotels or restaurants. But I hope that if only on May 1 we think about those Mazdoors (labourers) that help us to build these buildings. Of course we pay them for their services, but of them there is one who leads a very miserable life and cannot escape his fate. This is the Bhatta Mazdoor (brick maker).
In this modern world and computer age, the Bhatta Mazdoors live like slaves. No one is there to help them but the NGOs, who are fighting for their rights. No one is there to help them in making bricks by using the latest technology. Although computers have made a lot of difficult work easier, there has been nothing for the brick kiln industry. The coal used in the kilns is imported from South Africa, which is very costly, as there is not enough Pakistani coal to go around in kilns as our mining system is not developed enough to produce more. So, expenses in the brick kiln industry are higher, while the material cost is so high that the kiln owner can only earn money by torturing the labourers. He never even allows them to leave the area.
A worker told me that one day a nine year old child died at the kiln. The workers were condoling with the parents when the owner arrived. He ordered them back to work and asked them why they were weeping and crying so much for a child. A heated exchange apparently ensued between the father and the owner. To punish the father for his insolence, he was tied to the back of the owner’s jeep and dragged several hundred yards. Another worker told me one day that there were words between the employer and a worker, the end result of the altercation being that the worker was tied to the chimneys of the kiln and beaten.
If a person wishes to leave the kiln and work elsewhere, he has to pay back all his debts to the owner before he leaves. In this situation sometimes he takes paishgi (advance) from his new master and pays it back to the old one. This comes down to virtually selling himself.
The Brick Kiln Owners Federation puts forward an estimated figure of 6,000 brick kilns in Pakistan, with an average of 25 families at each site. The families who live on the sites are locked into a dependency relationship with the owner, which is akin to bonded labour. Indebtedness occurs with the paishgi system, under which the labourer borrows money from the owner to fulfill his family’s consumption requirements. The loan which the owner readily gives, functions as a trap, because it persists across generations due to high interest charges, manipulation of books, and low wages. During the period of paishgi repayment (which in many cases is inter-generational) the family is the virtual prisoner of the kiln owner and need special permission (not often granted) to leave the premises, even for a short period of time. Physical abuse, including rape of women and their abduction, has been reported. Many times children witness the cruel treatment of their parents by the owners, and grow up in an atmosphere of fear, insecurity and subjugation, which has a profound effect on their personality development. Skin diseases, due to contact with clay and dust, and exposure to intensive heat, as well as respiratory infections have also been noted among them.
There are different kinds of workers at the kilns. These are:
Patheras: who make the unbaked bricks. 96.8 percent women work as patheras.
Bharaiwala: who load the unbaked bricks on donkeys and carry them from where they are made, to the kiln, then put the unbaked bricks in the kiln.
Jalaiwala: who feed coal into the furnace (there are usually only four to six jalai workers at a kiln and they works in shifts of 12 hours each, or in two six hour shifts per day, without a single holiday in the month). This is the hardest job of all. At the peak of the hot season, they stand at the furnace.
Nakasiwala: who remove the baked bricks from the kiln.
The Patheras are the main brick makers. Their work is to excavate the clay, make the mixture, make lumps of clay, and mould these into bricks in a metal mould. Excavation and mixing are men’s jobs. Women do this job when the male workers in the family are either too old or too young, or unwell or for any reason unable to do this work all alone. Women and children make the clay-lumps and the brick-moulding. After being moulded the bricks are left to dry, and then piled into groups of ten (called tuttoos) and groups of twenty (called ghoris). This facilitates counting, because the workers are largely illiterate and cannot count in high numbers, so they simply count the group.
The brick kiln owners do not directly employ the labourers. They are engaged through a middleman who is called a Jamadar (a middleman who provides labour to brick kiln owners and ensures their work and presence at the brick kilns), but once employed they work directly under the control of the employers.
The brick kilns generally are situated in desolate places away from the main cities and towns. In kilns the working days are hardly 240-260 in a year. On rainy days there is no work. As such, during monsoon months in summer they remain idle. During this period piece-rate workers have no work and, as such, no wage. They became completely dependent on the owners, who give them some amount during this period for their subsistence, which is added towards their outstanding advance.
Their socio-economic conditions are inhuman. They have no right of education, health, recreation or security. They get a very small amount to make 1,000 katcha bricks (unbaked bricks). In the preparation of this 1,000 bricks, the whole family, i.e. men, women, children are involved, but wages are given to a single person only.

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