In September 2017, the NGO Anti-Slavery International released a report titled ‘Slavery in India’s Brick Kilns & the Payment System’ that highlights a host of problems with brick kilns in the country: use of child labour, marginalisation and abuse of women, violation of human rights and a lack of basic amenities in the workplace. The report was a damning indictment of work at the kilns in India and identified “the way brick kiln moulders are recruited and paid” as being responsible for “fuelling slavery”.
Even though the report focused on brick kilns in north India, primarily the states of Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, a prominent corridor for migration to the brick kilns in the country also lies in the state of Odisha. For the past two decades, falling agricultural levels and the lack of viable livelihoods has driven thousands of people from the western part of Odisha to migrate to the kilns in the neighbouring states of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh to look for work.
Umi Daniel, a social activist working for the NGO Aide et Action, says that until recently, it was hard to estimate the number of people from the region who migrated to the kilns every year. It is only with the recent compliance with the Interstate Migrant Workman Act of 1979, which calls for a record of migrating workers to be maintained at the source and destination, that a figure has begun to emerge.
This season, some 50,000 migrant workers were registered in Balangir district alone, but because migration to the kilns is usually a family affair, the actual number is much higher. “When you multiply that figure by a factor of three or four, we could get a figure. We could make an estimate of 200,000-300,000 people,” Daniel says.
A seasonal affair
The harvest festival of Nuakhai is central to the lives of people in western Odisha and is also a major source of expenditure. Over the years, this system of labour recruitment has evolved to become part of the rituals associated with the festival. During Nuakhai, many people take an interest-free loan from a labour contractor or sardar in return for agreeing to migrate and work in the kilns in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana to pay off their debt.
Mary Surin, a social worker who is currently employed by the Tata Trusts and who previously worked with the Odisha government for nearly a decade, has seen the cycle of indebtedness and migration in the villages of western Odisha at close quarters. “He [the labourer] has lived his life in that month itself. Then they completely pledge their labour for six months. They don’t care if they are working longer, if they are working for more money than they have taken as advance. That is the kind of understanding that has evolved over time,” says Surin.
At the brick kilns, with the real value of their labour hidden, entire families end up working in abysmal conditions until the kiln owner has deemed the debt has been paid off. Surin explains, “Now you [the workers] don’t understand how many bricks are made, how much money you are eligible for. It could be Rs 1 lakh but you might get just forty thousand.”
The reputation of brick kiln work is further marred by horrific instances of abuse, which periodically surface in news reports from the region, and bolster Anti-Slavery’s claim linking brick kiln work to slavery. The problem isn’t so much with migration in western Odisha; it is the conditions under which the migration takes place, under debt and distress, which opens up avenues for abuse.
Improving conditions for the migrant workers
In two districts of western Odisha, a small pilot programme run by a group of NGOs has been looking to improve the conditions under which people migrate to the kilns.
Under this initiative, which is operational in the Balangir and Nuapada districts of the state, families of migrant workers were provided an alternative to taking a loan from the labour contractor, to provide them with more flexibility during migration; brick kiln owners in the Karimnagar district of Telangana were also engaged to ensure better working conditions and wages for the workers.
Sarah, a programme manager with the Livolink Foundation, the grassroots NGO responsible for implementing the project, spoke about the tremendous efforts and challenges of improving conditions for the workers “We identified 51 kilns in Karimnagar (a district in Telangana), we geo-tagged the resources… public health centres, anganwadi centres, we also started health camps at the kilns.” At the worksite, meticulous records – in the form of employee rosters, labour dairies – were kept and updated regularly.
Families who migrated under the pilot programme by Livolink were also able to negotiate better pro-rata rates for the bricks they made instead of the fixed amounts they received earlier; they were given access to bank accounts and better facilities. Most importantly, there was a sense of volition when they worked in the brick kilns, instead of the inevitability they felt when migrating under the sardar.
Implementing such a programme, especially providing finance to the migrant workers, came with its own set of difficulties. For one, migrant workers are notoriously difficult to target with financial inclusion programmes. Many of them tend to be away from their homes for more than three months at a stretch, which makes the disbursal and collection of a loan a logistical nightmare. Most workers are also landless labourers, which inherently reduces their creditworthiness.
Jitendra Nayak, a programme director at Tata Trusts who has been working with the migrant kiln workers in Odisha, explained how attempts to get the workers finance from the banks drew a blank. “Banks are ready to give loans to self-help groups (SHGs) under priority sector lending because there is no problem in the case of default of SHG loans,” he says. But funding for other financial inclusion programmes was not forthcoming.
Another problem was that the migrant workers were essentially seeking consumption loans. “The product for consumption loans is not really there. Even if it is there, it is only for people who are salaried and all that,” Nayak says. In the end, the programme raised funds privately and routed it through a farmer producer organisation to provide the workers loans.
Informal credit and debt bondage
Circumventing the informal system of credit and labour recruitment in the rural areas is easier said than done.
“There are some products which the moneylender is able to give because he or she is embedded in the society that we (civil society organisations) will never be able to match,” says M.S. Sriram, a visiting faculty as the Indian Institute of Management, Bengaluru who specialises in financial inclusion.
Indeed, the advance provided by the sardar is just one of many forms of informal credit which hews closely to the lives of the community members. Mary Surin explains, “There are many relationships when it comes to informal credit. For consumption credit, you might go to the moneylender at the village level, for building a house or getting a job, you might reach out to the sardar, who offers to take you to the kilns for work. For an illness, there is a different moneylender, who picks up a different rate of interest”.
Thousands of people in western Odisha continue to migrate to the kilns through this decades-old system of advances and labour recruitment. Over the years, the system has evolved to become a highly instituted form of debt bondage, aided by the nature of work at the brick kilns, which functions in the manner of an assembly line and demands incessant labour.
One way of ensuring better conditions for the workers is to provide them with loans that are less coercive and give them greater flexibility at the worksite. In the absence of traditional collateral, could labour, more specifically, the guarantee of employment, function as hypothecation for the migrant workers? Could a labour credit card, along the lines of a kisan credit card, linked to government employment guarantee schemes instead of individual landholding, be used to provide labourers with loans?
Professor Sriram believes that hypothecating labour is not feasible and is no different from an unsecured loan. “If there is a default, what will you do? Will you approach the MNREGA authorities and say ‘Don’t pay him the money, put it into my account instead?’ You can’t do that. You are creating an imaginary security… similar to a moneylender who pretends he has leverage when he takes away your ration card. What can he achieve with the ration card? Nothing.”
He believes that tackling migration would require a whole new approach, one that moves away from providing access to finance and looks at employment instead. Then, there is also the fact that the efficacy of the government livelihood programmes in a region like western Odisha leaves a lot to be desired.
Another feasible solution would be to set up an institution of brick kiln labourers, modelled along the lines of labour cooperatives in Kerala or farmer producer organisations around the country. Such an institution would be able to draw up a contract between the brick kiln owners and labourers, reducing the scope for exploitation.
Jitendra Nayak, who has been trying to institute a similar cooperative in his project area, says “If there is an institution, the harassment will be less because the institution will have stronger powers… the [brick kiln] owner will not dare to torture.”
The labour cooperative could also help workers take an advance directly from the brick kiln owners instead of the sardar and negotiate better terms and working conditions for all its members. Though, for such an intervention to truly work at scale, the running of the labour cooperative would eventually have to move out of the hands of the socials sector organisations and into the ambit of the government.
A brick kiln worker’s story
Jaswant Majhi was one of the participants in the financial inclusion programme running across the Balangir and Nuapada districts of western Odisha. Jaswant, his wife Rukmani and his nephew earned Rs 1,17,378 during their six-month stint at the kiln in the Karimnagar district of Telangana, where the group moulded a total of 2,79,153 bricks. Each person in the group was paid Rs 380 for every 1,000 bricks they moulded, and an additional Rs 50 every week to meet basic expenses. Under the programme, Jaswant’s family also received a loan of Rs 80,000 before they migrated to the kilns.
Sitting on a charpoy outside Jaswant’s house in Mohorundi, a small hamlet in the Khaprakol mandal of Bolangir, I ask him about the conditions at the kilns, from where he has just returned a fortnight back after six months of back-breaking work. After a brief moment of hesitation, he says, “The wages and money for basic expenditure was good, but the basic facilities… the houses provided to us were bad.” Asked about his employer, Jaswant says, “the brick kiln owner thinks we are not good enough to be spoken to. He is like a businessman, one-sided, he only looks at how many bricks we have made, how much profit he can make”.
For Jaswant, the novel part wasn’t that he got paid a lot more money than when he migrated last; the hardship he endured at the kiln more than made up for it. What was surprising to Jaswant was that in all the years he migrated, this was the first time he received an accurate count of the bricks he moulded.
Elsewhere, in Bhaludongri village in Nuapada district’s Khariar block, we meet Lochan Majhi and her family, who too have just returned from the kilns. Before she migrated for the season, Lochan had enrolled her five-year old son, Tinku, in a seasonal hostel run by the district administration, an option that wasn’t available to her earlier.
At the kilns in Telangana, Lochan’s eldest daughter, Subrakesh – a quiet and reserved 18-year-old woman who is preparing for college – elected to enrol as a caretaker in the crèche. “I had a good experience, I learnt how to deal with children. I felt more good when the children obeyed what I said. It was new for me, and I learnt how to deal with things,” Subrakeshi says.
The way forward
All this is not to suggest that work at the kiln has gotten easier, or the exploitation has stopped. Surin, who has interacted with the migrant families several times over the course of the year, does not think the migration to the kilns should be encouraged as she believes the work is exploitative. “Ideally, I would not like to see them migrate,” she says. But in the absence of any immediate alternative, Surin knows that the best she can do is to ensure better working conditions for the migrant labourers.
Speaking to several migrant worker families, we came across numerous, small ways in which they said their lives have been made better. Although the gains of this particular pilot programme have been modest, and migration to brick kilns remains too big a phenomenon to be tackled or stopped, small measures taken to improve the conditions of the workers could go a long way. In the absence of an alternative to migration to the brick kilns, removing the aspect of ‘slavery’ from brick kiln work should be made a priority.
Prajwal Suvarna is a communications professional working in the development sector. He works for Rang De, a not-for-profit based out of Bengaluru.