24 August 2015
Why is bonded labour rife in Indian brick kilns?
Kate Willingham, International Advocacy Co-ordinator
Anti-Slavery International and partners have called for action to be undertaken by the Government of India to tackle bonded labour of adults and children in the brick kiln sector and ensure full compliance to ILO Convention 29 on Forced Labour and other ILO Conventions.
The Indian brick kiln sector is particularly vulnerable to forced and bonded labour. Widespread use of large advances and loans to secure and control workers, the employment of a large number of internal migrant workers from socially excluded and economically marginalised communities, exploitative recruitment practices, extremely low wages and widespread exploitation at workplaces are all common within the sector.
This is combined with a failure by the Government to implement relevant laws and prosecute offenders, a lack of sustained action targeting the root causes of bonded labour and an environment in which workers experience threats and violence when seeking to organise and act collectively.
Drawing from our partner’s work in Punjab and Chattisgarh, we have prepared a briefing paper outlining the challenges that brick kiln workers continue to face and recommendations to address these and ensure rights of workers in compliance with international and national law.
Some areas we highlight as of particular concern include:
Official structures to address bonded labour are not working effectively
Although structures to identify bonded labourers are in place, they are not operating well, with District Officials and Vigilance Committees not functioning effectively in their role to identify and release bonded labourers. Many of those in debt-bondage require the assistance of NGO partners to help them be released from bondage and gain access to the government rehabilitation package.
Payment and labour practices: women not paid separately; wages are not paid until the end of the season
There is little to no compliance with the legislation governing minimum wages. Low wages are particularly prevalent in the brick kiln sector where payment is on a piece rate basis (per brick) rather than a time rate wage. As there are usually no records detailing the number of bricks made or the rate paid per brick, workers usually find out what they have earned (or in many cases still owe) at the end of the season, without being shown any paperwork.
The piece rate system also allows for the payment of the male head of the household only, meaning that other members of the family are not officially recognised as workers or earn their own income, discriminating against women workers and other family members.
Although India has a relevant domestic law in place regarding labour inspections, in practice very few brick kilns are inspected properly to ensure minimum wages, proper keeping of employment records and safe working conditions.
Inability of workers to safely organise
Brick kiln workers face significant obstacles in organising and acting collectively to claim their rights. For example, in May, brick kiln workers in Punjab, who were assembling peacefully to discuss the newly released minimum wage rates, were shot at and physically assaulted by brick kiln owners. Since the owners often have much more influence over local authorities, workers can rarely seek support from them.
There is still much to do for the Indian Government to address forced and bonded labour.