End bondage, demand millions of Indian brick kiln workers as polls loom

An Indian labour works in a brick kiln on the outskirts of Amritsar. (File/AFP)
Updated 29 March 2019
0

End bondage, demand millions of Indian brick kiln workers as polls loom

  • Labour advocates met members of five major political parties this week
  • India abolished bonded labor in 1976 but it remains widespread and the country announced three years ago it would free 18 million people trapped in bondage by 2030

MUMBAI: Most of the 12 million workers in India’s brick kilns are victims of debt bondage, labor rights campaigners said on Friday, as they appealed to all major political parties to help crack down on the middlemen who trap them.
Labour advocates met members of five major political parties this week, ahead of general elections in April, to demand legislation for brick kiln workers is included in their political manifestos.
They also called for a ‘recruitment board’ to be set up for brick kiln owners looking to hire workers, which would eliminate labor contractors who offer cash advances to marginalized farmers in remote Indian villages only to trap them in bondage.
“Nearly all the workers in brick kilns fall under the category of bonded labor,” said Sudhir Katiyar of the National Struggle Committee of Brick Kiln Workers.
“They are recruited against advances and are then bound for the entire brick making season,” said Katiyar, whose group was formed last year to represent 11 nationwide trade unions working to improve the welfare of brick kiln workers.
India, which is the second-biggest brick producer in the world with output at nearly 250 billion bricks annually, has an estimated 200,000 brick kilns.
But the industry is largely unregulated with cases of abuse and child labor reported often in local media.
“If they want to leave early, their wages are deducted forcing them to pay back a huge amount to employers,” Katiyar told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “We want this mode of recruitment abolished.”
India abolished bonded labor in 1976 but it remains widespread and the country announced three years ago it would free 18 million people trapped in bondage by 2030.
Brick kiln workers are often trafficked from their villages, lured by the prospect of a good job and cash advances.
In many cases, they pass on their debt and poverty to their children, who end up working at the brick kilns and very often in inhuman conditions, Katiyar said.
While a handful of major builders in the country now use light-weight concrete blocks, a large part of the construction industry still leans on traditional burnt clay bricks, said industry expert Sameer Maithel.
A good part of the brick-making process remains manual as it is a cheaper option to machines.
Despite their numbers, the demands of brick kiln workers are often ignored by politicians.
“The demands are genuine but many of the workers are unable to vote during elections as they are working,” said migrant rights expert Umi Daniel, regional head of Aide et Action International, a Swiss-based non-profit.
“They are not really significant for political parties.”


Firefighters battle wildfire in Portugal, 32 people hurt

Updated 22 July 2019
0

Firefighters battle wildfire in Portugal, 32 people hurt

COLOS, Portugal: More than 1,000 firefighters battled a major wildfire Monday amid scorching temperatures in Portugal, where forest blazes wreak destruction every summer.
About 90% of the fire area in the Castelo Branco district, 200 kilometers (about 125 miles) northeast of the capital Lisbon, was brought under control during cooler overnight temperatures, according to local Civil Protection Agency commander Pedro Nunes.
But authorities said they expected heat in and winds to increase again in the afternoon, so all firefighting assets remained in place. Forests in the region are tinder-dry after weeks with little rain.
The Portuguese Civil Protection Agency said 321 vehicles and eight water-dumping aircraft were deployed to tackle the blaze, which has raced through thick woodlands.
Nunes told reporters that the fire, in its third day, has injured 32 people, one seriously.
Police said they were investigating what caused the fire amid suspicions it may have been started deliberately.
Temperatures were forecast to reach almost 40 C (104 F) Monday — prolonging a spell of blistering weather that is due to hit northern Europe late this week.
Recent weeks have also seen major wildfires in Spain, Greece and Germany. European Union authorities have warned that wildfires are “a growing menace” across the continent.
In May, forest fires also plagued Mexico and Russia.
Huge wildfires have long been a summer fixture in Portugal.
Residents of villages and hamlets in central Portugal have grown accustomed to the summer blazes, which destroy fruit trees, olive trees and crops in the fields.
In the hamlet of Colos, 50-year-old beekeeper Antonio Pires said he had lost half of his beehives in the current wildfire. Pires sells to mainly Portuguese and German clients, but also to Brazil and China.
“(I lost) 100 out of 230 (hives), so almost half,” Pires said. “A lot of damage.”
The country’s deadliest fire season came in 2017, when at least 106 people were killed.
The average annual area charred by wildfires in Portugal between 2010 and 2016 was just over 100,000 hectares (247,000 acres). That was more than in Spain, France, Italy or Greece — countries which are significantly bigger than Portugal.
Almost 11,500 firefighters are on standby this year, most of them volunteers. Volunteers are not uncommon in fire brigades in Europe, especially in Germany where more than 90% are volunteers.
Experts and authorities have identified several factors that make Portugal so particularly vulnerable to forest blazes. Addressing some of them is a long-term challenge.
The population of the Portuguese countryside has thinned as people have moved to cities in search of a better life. That means woodland has become neglected, especially as many of those left behind are elderly, and the forest debris is fuel for wildfires.
Large areas of central and northern Portugal are covered in dense, unbroken stretches of forest on hilly terrain. A lot of forest is pine and eucalyptus trees, both of which burn fiercely.
Environmentalists have urged the government to limit the area of eucalyptus, which burns like a torch. But it is a very valuable crop for Portugal’s important paper pulp industry, which last year posted sales worth 2.7 billion euros ($3 billion). The government says it is introducing restrictions gradually.
Experts say Portugal needs to develop a diversified patchwork of different tree species, some of them more fire-resistant and offering damper, shaded.
Climate change has become another challenge, bringing hotter, drier and longer summers. The peak fire season used to run from July 1 to Sept. 30. Now, it starts in June and ends in October.
After the 2017 deaths, the government introduced a raft of measures. They included using goats and bulldozers to clear woodland 10 meters (33 feet) either side of country roads. Property owners also have to clear a 50-meter (164-feet) radius around an isolated house, and 100 meters (328 feet) around a hamlet.
Emergency shelters and evacuation routes have been established at villages and hamlets. Their church bells aim to toll when a wildfire is approaching.
With 98% of blazes caused by human hand, either by accident or on purpose, officials have also been teaching people how to safely burn stubble and forest waste. Police, army and forest service patrols are also increased during the summer.