Working for a pittance! | Pakistan Today

Working for a pittance!

A hidden valley carpeted with thick red dust and craggy mounds spread on its surface lies at the end of a small village close to Tarlai, a small locality near the capital city, and in this dusty area dozens of laborers spend all their day from dawn to dusk making thousands of bricks from mud balls to make their both ends meet.
This is the small world of hundreds of Pakistani brick kilns workers who have been doing this laborious job from generation to generation. Nonetheless, the primitive production system at these ovens has done little to change their lives for good except filling the coffers of the owners.
Brick making has been a symbol of development of any society for years and decades but poor working conditions of people associated with this industry in Pakistan is a big question mark for the relevant government quarters and human rights organizations.
There are dozens of brick kilns near Islamabad and Rawalpindi where most of the workers were migrants from other parts of Pakistan, mostly from Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. More than half of the kiln workers live below the poverty line and they reside close to their ovens in mud-brick houses.
These ill-fated people badly lack the basic necessities life such as running water, toilet and drainage facilities at home; and they are all dependent on firewood for cooking.
The workers’ access to health and education is very limited. Most workers rely on private doctors. Among them, the molders had the highest percentage of health problems such as back aches, leg aches, and joint pains primarily due to the posture required for brick molding.
Only a small number of children of brick kiln workers go to school. Most of the workers, during a survey of brick ovens, said they could not afford to send their children to school because of being living in abject poverty.
Suleman, a worker, told Pakistan Today that he had six children: two daughters and four sons. Three children are old enough to work with him. “I want to get rid of this hell, I want to send my children to school but I have borrowed fifty thousand rupees from the owner of this brick kiln for the treatment of my wife, who is suffering from Hepatitis C.” Reciting a popular children’s poem, “Twinkle Twinke litte star”, Mumtaz Khan, his 8-year-old boy with curly golden hair, said he learned it from school, but doesn’t go there anymore.
Adult literacy at kilns is also nominal. Most of the workers, particularly women, do not even have National Identity Cards. Working conditions are no better than the workers’ living conditions at home. On average, workers have to work for 11 to 13 hours. The working relationship within the brick kiln sector is highly personalized in nature.
Most workers are unaware of any workers’ organization or union and the few who are aware of them are suspicious of them.
The brick workers know little about the industry they serve, except that they 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.
Another, worker Ashfaq said, “I know, by law, we cannot be compelled to work or be kept in bondage; but unfortunately we are bound to the kilns by debt. If we leave one kiln for another, our debt is also transferred to the new owner, and if someone tries to escape, they are hunted down,” he added.
With tears in his eyes, Ashfaq said: “The problem is that one can never earn enough to leave. If your mother 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.”
Sometimes, desperation drives kiln workers to risk a horrifying health hazard: selling their kidneys. The 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. “I thought if I did this, I could pay off the money I owed,” said Rasul Baksh, 48, an expert kiln worker. “They only paid me 80,000 rupees and I owed 100, 000,” he added. “I lost my kidney, but I am still in debt.” “I started work with my father to pay off his debt, but now my children are working to pay off my debt,” he added.
Tahira Abdullah, renowned human rights activist, said the problem with the brick kiln workers is that they have never been considered part of the formal labor force and t therefore there is almost no legal framework to cover them. “The workers at the kilns have no organizations or unions to raise voice for them and that is the major cause of their sufferings,” she said.

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