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Brick kiln labourers form a large portion of workers in the informal sector in India. Workers, who are usually from the poorest sections of Indian society, are recruited against a loan by labour contractor or employer, which they have to repay by working for them. However, as they lose control over the debt and cannot leave until the employer decides when it’s paid off, they cannot realistically leave the ‘employment’.

Despite being illegal, bonded labour is endemic within the brick industry in India. Because the kilns are considered part of the informal sector and operate without government’s oversight, kiln workers do not enjoy the rights and entitlements that workers in formal sectors benefit from.

Brick manufacturing is an important industry in Punjab, Haryana and Chandigarh. Although these states are not among the poorest in India, kiln workers remain one of the most vulnerable and overlooked. Most kiln workers in these states are internal migrants, recruited from poorer states such as Chattisgarh, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan, and are predominantly members of castes such as Dalits and indigenous groups that are commonly discriminated against.

The debts can be passed on from generation to generation. Workers are recruited and offered an advance, against which their earnings are deducted. However, they are not paid a salary or wage, as the money services the debt, and they have no idea until the end of the season how much they are entitled to receive or if they still “owe” the kiln owners. Even though a verbal agreement is usually made with the male head of household (there is no formal contract), the whole family, including young children, has to work long hours in the kilns to meet the targets. As they often take new loans to clear past debts, most workers are in perpetual bondage.

The working and living conditions are sometimes extremely harsh. As workers usually live within the kiln, there are high levels of hazardous substances such as arsenic, burnt plastic and dust. Workers, including children, are frequently injured at work. The average working day consists of 15-16 hours and the great majority of children do not attend school or have any play time. The accommodation is usually overcrowded, commonly with several families living together in one single room, with outdoor toilets.

Violence against the workers, including beatings and abductions of family members, is common, especially when labourers seek help. Women are also particularly vulnerable to abuse and sexual violence.

Kiln workers have little or no knowledge of their basic rights, entitlements and bonded labour prohibitions. Being from the most vulnerable segments of society and lacking organisation, bonded labourers remain “invisible” to the authorities.

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"To repay the loan we both had to do agricultural work on his farm for seven years." Read Mathura and Dolamani Bagh's story

The owner threw bricks at him.  Read Bitu's* story

Man laying bricks down to dryWorkers at a brick kiln ©Bishnu Sarangi /