Source: Google photo
Synopsis : We see women and young girls working hard in brick factories in India and other South Asian countries under slave like conditions , poorly paid and exploited by the owners. They are treated as bonded laborers because they borrowed small sums of money they could not pay back with usurious interest. This blog looks at this sad treatment of women and suggests ways to improve their lives through government intervention.
I feel so sad looking at this photo. She is a young woman who carries on her head 10 bricks that weigh at least 40 kilos total and is seen struggling to put the last two bricks on the pile that she must carry. You can see the anguish in her dust covered face while a teen age girl who is just a child is seen just behind her who is also carrying a heavy weight on her head and struggling with the task as the weight is too much for her.
Do you know who they are and why they are forced to do such hard work when they should be doing far less strenuous work or be in school? They are the bonded laborers in the brick kiln factories in India where they are paid pittance for their extremely hard labor to pay off the paltry sums they or their husbands had borrowed from the owner that they failed to pay off due to very high and compound rate of interest.
These women and children can’t run away because they are like slaves whom the owner abuses with impunity as long as he wishes. There have been some NGOs trying to rescue these women and children from this type of slavery but were attacked by the owners or their goons and beaten up while the policemen ignore their plight.
There have been token rescue efforts in the past and some children were rescued and sent to schools but there are thousands of such kilns all over the country where thousands are enslaved this way who lose their health breathing the dust every day, lose their youth and get callous hands. Many develop deadly disease like tuberculosis breathing the toxic smoke and dust everyday but they have no medical insurance to pay for their sickness so they die young. They barely earn enough to get two simple meals a day if they are lucky consisting of a few chapatis and dal. They never get any animal protein or milk because they are too poor so they are malnourished.
While the Government of India promises debt relief to millions of farmers and has sent some money to them already, it could be seen more as a campaign tactic to please the voters in the upcoming elections in India. The opposition parties also make fake promises like it but do not say how they will pay the billions required for such promises.
No one has promised any relief to these hard working slaves in brick factories other than passing a few laws that make it illegal to treat women like this and make very young girls work there. But these laws are ineffective because they are rarely implemented on the ground so the business is as usual for the owners. At best or worst some bribe money passes into the hands of corrupt policemen so they do nothing. Who wants to hurt a milk cow?
When the NGOs complain to the police, they are told that they will look into the matter but never do because of corruption. Young activists risk their lives trying to rescue the unfortunate women and girls and rarely succeed but when they do, the policemen and the politicians take credit saying that they are implementing the laws vigorously and punishing the owners.
Such news make it to the media for a while where the politicians and the policemen are seen bragging about the success while the bewildered kids and women look on and repeat what they are told to repeat on camera thanking the authorities.
What they do not show is what happens to these poor and destitute women and teen age girls who are illiterate and how they are living without any money to buy the food daily. Often they run back to the factories where they get a few Rupees that they need to buy the food so nothing really changes.
The NGOs are often accused by the government of foreign funding and showing India in a bad light so they are banned and their operations closed putting all their noble effort into jeopardy just because they are trying to help the women when no one really comes forward to help. The desperation for money often lures the unfortunate women into prostitution when nothing else works.
The insatiable demand for the bricks for building houses and commercial building nationwide fuels these factories that work overtime to meet the demand so these poor women find it very difficult to get out of the trap they find themselves in and want to escape. But there is no escape.
It reminds me of the white trash slave catchers in the United States who were hired by the slave owners to bring back the runaway slaves so it became quite a thriving business for them and they got some rewards from the plantation owners so the analogy is somewhat similar here.
Source: Google photo of modern Hyderabad
India is a shining example of development that has put the whole country on a fast track to become the next super power and the model of development. You will see this as soon as you land somewhere and pass through brand new ultra-modern airports, from where you are whisked away in modern subway cars to modern hotels. You will see this when you drive on 8 lane super highways crisscrossing the nation flanked on both side by glittering steel and glass skyscrapers and huge malls, parks and electronic bill boards.
You will see this in the massive housing projects where millions live in gated communities in comfort. You will see this in new railways where the modern train will bring you anywhere running at 160 km/hour speed and the new bullet trains and Hyper loop are under construction. You will see this in the new dedicated railway lines only for freight.
There are constructions everywhere but the poor people who build these massive infrastructures remain poor and unknown. It is just like in Dubai where the poor and abused migrant workers from India and Pakistan build their shiny cities but go back to their slums in the evening where they live in overcrowded rooms like animals.
You too will be very impressed by what you see in Dubai or in India but you will never see or get to meet the poor people who build the new cities and highways or the airports.
So the demand for the bricks for the nationwide construction boom makes these brick factories work overtime and employ the poor people under slave like conditions because they continue to make the most profit by keeping their production cost low this way.
In other countries people make hollow blocks by pressing the mixture of sand and cement into a mold that dries up after a few days and becomes hard. It is perhaps the easiest way to make bricks or blocks that are then used to make buildings or very tall structures.
In other countries they have automated clay brick factories even in poor countries like Rwanda where a machine is used to make the clay paste that is then fed through a mold to make the brick. The dried bricks that look like hollow blocks are then put in the electric oven to bake them at high temperature so you get a beautiful orange colored hard brick that is perfectly uniform in shape, size and strength.
In rural Africa they too use a mold to make their clay bricks to build their round huts but they do it through the communal effort for free so it is a joyous community affair and no one is exploited because helping each other to build their homes is not a business but a selfless service.
This is not so in India. There it is a cut throat business to make as much money as possible as fast as possible using many short cuts that involve using the poor uneducated people to make the bricks that the owners sell at a high price but pay the workers a pittance from which the small loans they borrowed are deducted with interest.
This is the backwardness of a country that sends satellites to Mars and is the leader in the field of information technology where the computers are used everywhere.
There is another serious aspect to this backward technology of making clay bricks the traditional way. These kilns use wood to fire up so millions of trees are felled to supply the firewood need nationwide thus depleting the forest cover not to mention the need to burn bodies for cremation nationwide putting great pressure on the forest cover in the country.
The brick factories also use coal to fire up their kilns but we all know how polluting coal and wood burning are harming the atmosphere but this system continues unabated. There is no move to modernize the brick making process so this method of making clay bricks continues in most parts while very poor countries like Burundi and Rwanda are using modern methods using electric ovens to bake the machine made bricks.
Here in the Philippines our house was built with hollow blocks made from sand and cement so they are hard. They are then put together by expert masons who use strong cement and sand mortar to build walls and use steel rods to enforce the strength of the walls. Then they plaster the walls with cement and give it a smooth coat of pure cement as finishing. The walls are so strong that it takes two men several hours to make a small hole in it. There is no shortage of cement in the market here. We ended up using over 2000 bags of it for building our house.
But in India the construction methods are very different where due to 50 degree Celsius summer heat, the walls are made super thick like 14 inches to 18 inches with sand and lime mixture as mortar. There used to be a shortage of cement due to the demand so cement is still sparingly used in private construction because most of the cement is taken by the government for the national infrastructure development.
The construction methods and materials depend a great deal on the local weather, the availability of materials and the cost of labor so people still use the traditional baked clay bricks that you see in the photo above. But this blog is about the exploitation of poor women and even very young girls who toil very hard to earn just enough to feed themselves a simple meal.
When they get sick or old, they lose their jobs so how they can survive? There is no social security for them and they have zero savings to rely on.
They cannot go to school so they remain in their poverty trap and can’t get any other job easily even if they can get free from the clutches of the abusive brick factory owners so it continues generation after generation. I have never seen so many women working in the construction business anywhere in the world except in India, Bangladesh and other South Asian countries.
You see them building roads, sky scrapers, dams, houses, irrigation canals, airports etc. but they are used as the brick carriers or mortar and water. They do not have the skills as masons, carpenters or steel masons so they are given the hard labor job. They are seen crushing stones under the hot sun just with a hammer, carrying 40 kilos of heavy bricks, carrying water and other things, beating the mixture of sand, lime and gravel on the roof with wooden mallets to make it waterproof and numerous other jobs often keeping their kids in the shade of a tree because they do not have anyone to look after them at home.
I only wish that India pays attention to the plight of these women and frees them from this virtual slavery by modernizing the brick making process and creating alternative employment for them that are less demanding and better paying.
Women can be trained to assemble things in factories like they do in China or they can be trained to sew clothes, shoes and bags. In other countries women are trained to assemble cars, motorcycles or bicycles and numerous other things. In Taiwan women assemble cell phones and electronics.
Women with their nimble hands can do many jobs that men can’t. I truly feel sorry for these women who carry such heavy loads on their heads day after day and continue to suffer. They should be given other options in a country like India that is fast developing into a modern country but it should not come at a cost of such hard labor done by women.
They could be our mothers.
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