Brick and Bondage

Published in Dawn November 1st, 2016

ONE of the many trials and tribulations of workers engaged in brick-making was reflected in the recent news of their children protesting against the closure of three schools, facilitated by an NGO and supported by the Sindh Education Foundation, at the brick kilns in Tando Hyder in Sindh.

The brick kiln labour force, one of the most vulnerable and marginalised sections of our society, works and lives under debt bondage. Deprived of social, health and safety protections, and decent shelter and civic entitlements, brick kiln workers have been trapped in an exploitative cycle for decades. The law to eliminate debt bondage, the Bonded Labour System Abolition Act of 1992, and civil society’s sustained but small-scale efforts to support brick kilns workers have not achieved the desired results. The reasons include lack of implementation of laws, absence of a regulatory framework for the brick industry and abundant supply of unskilled and cheap labour.

It seems the social movement and the framing of the law have both failed to uplift the brick kiln sector’s labour force. So, what can be done to initiate change? How can the old social order — oppressive worker-employer relations — be removed to make way for a better bargain for workers? The answer is to introduce alternate technology that would challenge the status quo and compel changes in the production relations of the brick sector.

It is time that Pakistan’s outdating, polluting, inefficient and energy-consuming method of making bricks manually and baking them in the bull’s trench kiln (BTK) should give way to efficient and cleaner brick technologies, such as the Hoffman kiln or tunnel kiln — as it happened in China, is happening in Bangladesh, and is under serious debate in India. In Latin America — Peru, Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Mexico — artisanal brick-making is being modernised under a multi-pronged strategy.

Energy security is the new paradigm in the global discourse on the brick kiln sector. Human and labour rights frameworks are no longer talked about. Fortunately, change in technology has brought in social dividends and led to improved labour standards and work conditions in the brick kilns.

According to an estimate, there are 12,000 brick kilns in Pakistan and 99pc are using the primitive BTK technology, consuming almost 40 per cent of locally produced coal. Besides coal, the sector uses agro waste, rubber tyres, plastics, etc, which produces highly toxic gases. Attempts made by a few kiln owners to introduce alternate technology have not been successful. Reasons include the high cost of technology and capital investment, resistance to technology transfer, lack of knowledge of modern innovations and lack of motivation for skills enhancement. There is neither a legal framework nor any standardisation of kiln design and quality of bricks produced. The sector is not recognised as an industry; hence kiln owners cannot access credit.

In a 2012 evaluation of energy conservation potential in brick kilns, undertaken by the Saarc Energy Centre in Islamabad, the researcher found tunnel kilns to be the most energy efficient. However, it was recommended that since “the process of technology transfer and adaptation of new techniques is usually not welcomed […] it is envisaged that low investment proposals with a modular approach on energy conservation measures may present a high probability on acceptance”.

The global happenings in the brick sector provide an opportunity for local civil society groups and NGOs to adopt a similar approach — advocacy and support for the induction of alternate technology — to address human rights issues afflicting the sector. There is a need to motivate, despite all the misgivings of civil society, and to take into confidence the key stakeholder — the Brick Kiln Owners Association which, on its website, cites ‘mode­rnisation of brick kilns’ as part of their agenda.

Experiences from Bangladesh can be shared, where the hybrid Hoffman kiln technology has been introduced in nine kilns after redesigning by the Chinese to suit local conditions. The project is funded by the World Bank Group in partnership with a private financial institution. Civil society groups in Nepal are also looking toward cleaner technologies in the brick sector. Better Brick Nepal, initiated in 2014 by the BrickClean Network, is aiming to address labour and environmental issues with the support of international donors.

The government also must play its role and adopt policy and legislative frameworks for the brick kiln sector, and extend incentives to the owners for technology transfer and skills development of its workers. In contrast to the tunnel kiln, Hoffman kiln technology is labour intensive. Even if a portion of the labour force is ejected from the currently ‘cursed’ sector, it would be for the better. In a study conducted by the Sustainable Develop­ment Policy Institute a few years ago, 93.5pc of the workers stated that they would leave work at brick kilns if they could.

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