In Pakistan, Generations of Brick Makers See Few Changes
Washington Post Foreign Service
At the end of a village road, behind a grassy bluff, lies a hidden valley carpeted with thick red dust and canyoned with craggy mounds of earth. At the bottom, clay-coloured figures squat barefoot all day, shaping balls of mud into bricks. In the distance, a dozen scattered chimneys spew clouds of black smoke, which trail off prettily across the horizon.
This is the world of Pakistan’s brick kilns, a self-contained and primitive production system that has changed little in generations. It relies on the labour of migrant families, from girls of 6 to grizzled grandfathers, who live in brick huts beside the kilns, rarely leave the quarries and never fully wash off the red mineral stains that seep into their feet, hands and clothing.
“My father did this work before me, and my children will do this work after me,” said Abdul Wakil, 25, who makes bricks in a kiln about 20 miles from Islamabad, the capital. Sitting on his haunches last week, he slapped mud balls into metal molds and moved like a crab along the lengthening row of damp bricks. The workday had started at 4:30 a.m. By sundown, Wakil said, he would finish 1,200 bricks and earn $3.50.
His two younger sons toddled along beside him, playing in the mud. The 7-year-old was already at work, deftly molding balls. A gaunt old man watched from a cart, coughing frequently. His fingers were stained mauve. He was not certain of his age but said he had been working in the kilns “since the time of Ayub Khan,” a military ruler of the 1950s.
“This work shortens your life. No one would do it by choice,” said the man, Abdul Sadiq. “The problem is that you can never earn enough to leave. If your wife needs an operation or the rainy seasons lasts too long, you have to borrow from the kiln owners. You try to repay it, but the debt stays with you, sometimes for your whole life. It’s like a pair of invisible handcuffs.”
Brickmakers toil near the bottom of Pakistan’s economic and social ladder, forever at the mercy of heat, dirt, human greed and official indifference. By law, they cannot be compelled to work or be kept in bondage; in practice, the great majority are bound to the kilns by debt. The work is seasonal and families move often, but if they leave one kiln for another, their debt is transferred to the new owner. If they try to escape, they said, they are hunted down.
At least 200,000 Pakistanis, many of them children, work in more than 2,500 kilns across the country, according to studies by labour advocacy organizations. Their plight is well known and often described as a national disgrace. Human rights groups have exposed cases of kiln owners chaining or imprisoning workers; reformists have initiated programs to forgive their debts and educate their children.
But resistance to change has been stubborn. Kiln owners tend to be economically powerful and politically well-connected, while many brick workers are illiterate, nomadic, cut off from modern society and unaware of their rights. For all its discomforts and indignities, moreover, this is the only life they know, and some say they cannot imagine where else they would go.
“Brick workers fall outside the formal labour force and fall between the cracks of the law,” said Tahira Abdullah, an activist with the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan in Islamabad. “They have no unions, no organization, no voice and no one to speak for them.” With permanent debts tying most of them to the kilns, she added, “they are almost like serfs.”
Although federal laws against child labour and debt peonage are rarely enforced, the Pakistani court system has recently become more aggressive in pursuing cases of worker imprisonment. Protests by brick workers against inhumane conditions, some organized by a national group called the Bonded Labour Liberation Front, are becoming more common.
Such encouraging news rarely penetrates the insular world of the kilns, however, while cautionary tales circulate swiftly. In conversations at several kilns in this Punjab province district last week, a few older workers said that they had heard about efforts to promote debt forgiveness or wage increases over the years, but that no one had ever actually come to help them.
Salim Mohammed, 28, said that five years ago he asked for a raise of 20 rupees (about 30 cents) a day. The owner refused and had him arrested on false charges. The police beat him severely, he said, and after one month the owner finally had him released. The case is still languishing in a provincial court. Mohammed still works in the kilns, and his two sons work alongside him.
“I just wanted a little more for my kids, but what I got was a lesson that people like me can never raise their voice without something bad happening to them,” Mohammed said, sipping tea at dawn last week beside a waiting mound of mud.
Most workers said they could not afford to send their children to school, or managed to buy them books and shoes for only a couple of years before giving up. A bright-eyed, 8-year-old quarry boy named Zarfran Khan proudly counted from one to 13 in English, then trailed off. “I liked school,” he said in Pashto, the language of many migrant kiln families from the northwest, “but I don’t go there anymore.”
The brick workers know little about the industry they serve, except that when building construction is up, they must race to fill orders, and when it is down, they abruptly get laid off. They never see the kiln owners, but every two weeks, a manager arrives with a ledger that records their pay and any deductions they want to make toward their debt.
The work itself needs no supervision; it is an ancient assembly line in which everyone knows his part. Even the little quarry donkeys seem to know that when the last of 32 new bricks is placed on their backs, it is time to start along the dusty path to the kiln. On the return trip, the teenage herders leap on the donkeys’ empty backs with whoops of glee, goading the beasts to a canter. It is the herders’ only source of fun during the long, sweltering days.
The kiln chimneys belch black smoke round the clock, while stacks of bricks bake in huge underground ovens that are filled, emptied and refilled by hand, one brick at a time. Grimy men feed coal chips to the roaring fire through small holes in the oven’s roof. Burns are a routine hazard, usually from hot bricks that topple. The smoke is toxic, but activists said periodic efforts to regulate kiln pollution had failed.
Sometimes, desperation drives kiln workers to risk a horrifying health hazard: selling their kidneys. The clandestine organ trade is criminally prosecuted and socially condemned in Pakistan, but kiln workers said it is one of the few available means of acquiring enough cash to pay off their debts. They said organ agents transport willing workers to urban clinics for the surgery, pay them the equivalent of a few thousand dollars afterward, then vanish.
“I thought if I did this, I could pay off the money I owed,” said Imam Baksh, 45, a veteran kiln worker. After a moment’s hesitation, he lifted his dirty tunic to display a long, diagonal scar across his left side. “They only paid me 80,000 rupees [about $1,600 at the time], and I owed 100,000,” he added. “I lost my kidney, but I am still here, and I am still in debt.”
In this timeless but precarious existence, families may work together at a kiln for years, occupying the same cluster of gloomy brick huts, and then be gone in an instant. Last week, a family of six was evicted and had piled up all their belongings outside: three string beds, a bicycle, clothes, cooking pots, and their prized possession — an electric fan.
The father looked haggard and worried. He said that they were moving on to another kiln, and that their debt of 50,000 rupees would follow them. But as the family piled bundles into a horse cart, a little girl watching them began to weep. Even if their next perch were in another dusty red valley only a few miles away, she understood that she would never see them again.
Watch this video about child labour in Pakistan: