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India: Fighting Brick Bondage With Unity

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A Jan Jagriti Kendra field officer speaking about unity in Riwapar, a village where 90 percent of the inhabitants migrate out to brick kilns and other construction sites. Image by Yardain Amron. India, 2017.

A Jan Jagriti Kendra field officer speaking about unity in Riwapar, a village where 90 percent of the inhabitants migrate out to brick kilns and other construction sites. Image by Yardain Amron. India, 2017.

CHHATTISGARH, India — For a few days in November 2016, an otherwise shabby room with six naked lightbulbs displayed a bold laminated poster:

ERADICATING BONDED LABOR IN INDIA’S BRICK KILN INDUSTRY

RIGHT TO INFORMATION TRAINING

FACILITATED BY JAN JAGRITI KENDRA (JJK)

Pretzeled atop floral and plaid bed-cushions was JJK’s new staff of field officers. The previous night, after a flurry of tests and interviews, the local NGO had pared down its 60 part-time volunteers to the two-dozen best men and women and offered them full-time jobs. Now, as they scribbled notes in Hindi, Sameer Taware, Anti-Slavery International’s (ASI) India Project Officer, stood explaining how the reorganization would work in the field.

The fundamentals would stay the same. As a source state for India’s seasonal brick industry, Chhattisgarh supplies around one million migrant laborers to kilns in states to its north. With financing and direction from ASI, JJK works across 6 of the state’s 27 districts, in about 200 villages with large majorities of migrant brick laborers. Teams of two field officers are assigned 10 to 15 villages, and every month organize a meeting in each to provide social and legal support.

On a piece of easel paper, Taware outlined a new four-step village classification system he wanted the officers to use in the field. The first level is grassroots organization—when officers must simply establish a consistent and well-attended meeting. The second and third are rights education and action—in which officers teach villagers about various relevant laws and schemes and how to use them in face-to-face encounters with brick kiln owners and government officials. And the fourth is self-dependence—at this time staff are no longer needed and villagers organize their own meetings. Taware drew a big circle, and inside it, a bunch of smaller circles randomly numbered one to four—a crude sketch of villages within a district block. He gradually crossed out the 1's, 2's and 3's until all the circles were 4's and then drew lines connecting them all in a web. This was the end goal: To steer each village to level four and create a self-dependent labor union across the block, district, and perhaps even state. Over the next month, he wanted the staff to classify all the villages they were working in and by his next visit show him progress.

After lunch, Ganga Sekhar, an independent legal coordinator, led a legal training with the staff circled around her on the floor. She began with a basic question: What’s the difference between a brick kiln laborer and a common laborer? As she cataloged the staff’s answers, two stark, uneven profiles emerged: The common laborer—a local farmhand for instance—controls his own schedule, works a reasonable number of hours, and is paid a fixed or hourly wage; he can access government schemes and entitlements, safeguard his family, and ensure his children go to school.

On the other hand, the brick laborer is dictated a schedule by the kiln owner, works 14 to 16 hour days on average, and is paid an un-guaranteed wage by the brick. This piece rate, as it’s called, typically compels entire families to migrate to the kiln together, as more hands equals more bricks equals more money—at least theoretically. In practice, the piece rate and kiln environment more generally function to shift any conceivable liability, expense, and ancillary work to the pocket of the laborer: He often pays for his own travel to and from the kilns; upon arrival, he must spend 10 to 15 unpaid days preparing his home and workspace on a leased plot of land; whenever it rains, work is halted for a few days while the bricks dry; and there’s typically no paid sick leave nor compensation for injury on the job.

The staff offered this industry profile casually as if it were common knowledge. And it is, in the media, and among the laborers themselves. Brave reportage from the kilns has documented human rights abuses, child labor, and dramatic rescues. But less coverage has focused on who these laborers are before they migrate. While the mass exodus to the kilns had already passed in September, the harsh local conditions remained—from landlessness and caste exploitation, to debt, unemployment, and broken government schemes—and over the next few days, helped explain how kiln owners are able to lure these locals hundreds of miles from their homes to work one of the most punishing, exploitative jobs in the world.

A Meeting For Unity

The day after attending the session I drove south with my translator Surbhi to a JJK meeting at Riwapar, a 4,000-person village of which 90 percent migrate out for brick and construction work each season. As we crossed over one of a dozen-plus dams on the Mahanandi River, the panoramic view clear to the horizon compelled us to stop. Down and upstream, the shallow riverbed had exposed a sandy archipelago and tic-tac sized people were sprinkled about—swimming, bathing, fishing, washing clothes. Leaning over the railing, our driver Ghopal called down to a group of underwear-clad boys diving near the deep base of the dam. They waved and exchanged a few brief echoey back-and-forths across 100 feet of vertical space. When we finally drove off, Ghopal explained that they were scavenging for precious metals sedimented from the dam and marketable back in town. There was no school today, and the boys were working.

When we arrived, about 70 men were already crowded around a roofed platform, and inside upfront, a handful of women in saris sat together with children on their laps. Shyamanad Barik, one of JJK’s field coordinators, began the meeting with a traditional patriotic chant: “Bharat mata ki jai”—"Hail mother land." His central message was to unite. Looking out for their own families was not enough. When trouble would inevitably arise at the kilns, they must support each other and together raise their voices. If, or more likely when the owner lashed back—by say, cutting their living wage—they must not waver. “He’s not a lion or tiger that will eat you,” Barik said. He spoke with a self-pleasing confidence and concluded with a theory of internalized oppression. “Why are you exploited despite being a citizen of this country? Because you yourself feel that ‘I am poor, I am illiterate’. But it’s not true. All over the world you see strong buildings, long roads, beautiful houses. Everything is built by workers. So how can you be weak? You should not consider yourself weak.”

A few JJK field officers followed with similar unity-themed speeches, and then appealed to the villagers. Only one volunteered—a man named Rajesh Ajay wearing a fake Under Armour t-shirt and holed jeans patched with an X of red tape. He spoke with a fresh urgency, opting for a personal story. The previous year, he began, his and three other families from the village had gone to work at a kiln in Sambalpur, Odisha—about 50 miles to the east. After two months, the owner still hadn’t paid them anything, but when they demanded their wages, he kept delaying week after week. The families went on strike and finally the owner said he would write them checks. But the group knew this to be a check-bouncing ploy popular amongst brick kiln owners. “He thought he was very smart,” Ajay said, “that we were all illiterate and stupid.”

The group demanded cash, and things escalated. The owner’s henchmen began harassing the families to try and break their unity, and the group’s most educated leader got scared. “I realized these brick kiln owners are so powerful that even an educated man can get dominated,” Ajay said to the crowd. “So you can understand what an illiterate person’s fate will be.” Still, the group kept fighting, and eventually with JJK’s remote guidance they were able to obtain their wages and return home to Riwapar. He concluded with the practical advice to never accept checks—and a heartfelt plea to unite.

After the meeting, the JJK team withdrew to a local field officer’s house to debrief, and I stayed back to talk to Ajay. At 27, fit and balding, he spoke one-on-one with the same speech-like fervor from the meeting, only now tonally more frustrated than motivational. Like many brick laborers, he started migrating to kilns as a young boy with his parents and continues today with his own extended family—two brothers, their wives, and eight children collectively. He’s worked in so many kilns, in so many states, that he can speak seven or eight dialects. And critically, he's been cheated out of his earnings 10 to 12 times by kiln owners. “I haven't been able to save anything. I still live in a mud house, and whatever money I've made is just good enough for me [and my family] somehow to survive.”

I felt the cold broader reality deflating his rosy uplifting anecdote. Though grateful for JJK’s assistance and hopeful the meetings would foster unity in the village, Ajay was ultimately resigned to a life of unemployment and brick kiln migration—even for his children. “I want them to be trained [at the kiln]. They have no future. There’s no point sending them to school because there’s no employment [here].”

The sun was dipping when we finally drove off. At the village exit, we passed a few kids playing hopscotch. I wondered about their futures. Whether that JJK meeting meant to help ensure them had been as effective as possible. The team had spoken confidently about unity, but almost exclusively from the hard-to-grasp distance of grand generalities. Why hadn’t Barik tapped his personal experience as a former bonded laborer? Why hadn’t the rest of the staff made more of an effort to encourage other villagers to speak? Why after the meeting ended did the entire staff promptly leave to debrief rather than linger and talk to the villagers individually? If the long-term goal was indeed building a self-dependent union, I was skeptical what I witnessed was a viable strategy.

Where Are The Jobs?

Over the next few days and another week in December, we drove from village to village around Janjgir, dodging dogs and goats and cattle as a broader picture crystallized. Perhaps the most significant takeaway was that like Ajay, most villagers pointed to a lack of local employment as the singular impetus for their migrating. While this rationale made complete sense on a practical level, it was surprising on an academic one. Research on the causes of bonded labor point to a range of linked factors including landlessness, caste exploitation, and lack of access to legitimate credit lines. In fact, the problem was less that the local jobs didn’t exist—though it’s likely there aren’t enough to employ everyone who desires one. The problem was a transforming marketplace from which locals like Ajay were being excluded.

First, while agriculture remains the state’s chief industry (Chhattisgarh’s nickname is the Rice Bowl), rapid mechanization over the past dozen-or-so years has decimated manual harvesting. On our way into Pirda to observe another JJK meeting, beyond a few lunghi-clad men and their grazing cattle was a harvesting machine slicing through yellow paddy fields. Up close, the owner barked orders at his operator steering in a tight snake-like circuit, while a group of men waited in a cue to have their plots plowed next. The economics were unsustainable for landless locals who relied on such farm work while the kilns are closed. The owner said: While 15 laborers can harvest one acre of land in a day, one machine can do the same in an hour for half the price, and up to 10 acres in a day. Manual labor accounts for hardly 20 percent of the industry in the region now, according to another Punjabi owner.

Second, the state government has failed to properly implement the country’s most ambitious effort to solve its rural jobs problem, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA). Approved in 2005, and considered the largest public works program in the world, MNREGA guarantees rural laborers employment on infrastructure projects in or nearby their home village for 100 days per year, and their wages within 15 days. Like much national policy in India though, MNREGA efficacy varies widely state to state. In Janjgir at least, and likely Chhattisgarh more broadly, the program’s payment system is broken. At the meeting, a few of the 20 men present said they had worked on a nearby pond deepening project back in 2015, but were paid only after a year and a half. There had been no projects since, and no one seemed optimistic any were on the way. “What the sarpanch does is even if he sanctions a project, he doesn’t come to us,” one man had said. “He waits for us to go off to the kilns and then starts the work with his [family and friends].”

Third and finally, when local industry owners construct new factories in the area, the new jobs are by and large given to other migrant workers. A group of students crowded around a street vendor in Bade Seepat said this was because, as at the kilns, migrant workers in Janjgir typically work longer hours, are paid less, and are more easily exploited without the support of their local community. “We know that local people are not given any kind of employment in the [power] plants so that is why we haven’t gone,” the vendor Visham Kurana said.

Nonetheless, on a macro level, there was a certain incongruity to the unemployment problem. From the main roads, the district economy seemed like it was thriving: Power plants buzzed. New buildings gained stories. Farmers markets and fairs bustled. And with the paddy harvest in full swing, harvesters filled the fields, tractors the roads, and procurement centers stayed open late into the night. When we turned off those main roads, into the interior villages, that same district economy did seem much more erratic and stagnated; like Riwapar, village after village was nearly emptied out and struggling. But of those left who hadn’t migrated, while a clear majority were the unemployable elderly and children, an unmistakable minority were strong working-aged men. They wandered the roads. Lounged on shaded stoops. Played cards. Some might conclude that the real problem was laziness—that universal stigma often submitted to explain poverty.

But, at the end of the Pirda meeting, I asked the group what they might say to someone who would blame laziness for their unemployment. Ram Omar, JJK’s appointed leader of the local village union, laughed and raised his arms. “We are ready to work, all of us are ready, sitting here, there is no one giving us work. So how can they say we do not want to work?”