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
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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.”


Women's temple ban debate rages in India flashpoint vote

Updated 36 sec ago
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Women's temple ban debate rages in India flashpoint vote

  • Indian Supreme Court ruled the ban on women from entering a Hindu temple as unconstitutional
  • Two of the three candidates for presidency support the ban

PATHANAMTHITTA, India: Voters in a flashpoint constituency in southern India went to the polls Tuesday after a campaign dominated by the fallout from the controversial decision to allow women to enter a Hindu temple.
The district of Pathanamthitta in the state of Kerala includes the Sabarimala Hindu temple, where two women finally defied a longstanding ban on women of menstruating age last year.
Traditionalists were outraged and many women remain divided over the move, which has overshadowed the campaign with candidates staging election parades on the issue.
Kanaka Durga and Bindu Ammini made history in December when police guided them into the hilltop shrine, after the Supreme Court ruled that the ban was unconstitutional.
Days of pitched battles erupted between traditionalists and activists. The anger has not died down and core issues such as unemployment, health and education have been pushed aside during the campaign.
The whole country is expected to follow the result when it is announced on May 23 after India’s marathon election.
Two of the three main candidates in the election are men who support the ban, while the third is a woman who has tried to dodge the topic.
Veena George, who is standing for the alliance of left wing parties that runs Kerala’s state government cited an election commission advisory to avoid using the temple to get votes.
“We need a revival of job opportunities, agriculture and infrastructure. Educated women need jobs,” she told AFP on the last day of campaigning before Tuesday’s vote.
India’s main opposition Congress party has fielded Anto Antony, who won the last two elections and has backed the traditionalists.
The Bharatiya Janata Party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has brandished its pro-Hindu credentials as it seeks to make an impact in a state where it has always struggled.
The BJP has fielded K. Surendran, who became the symbol of the massive temple protests across Kerala. He now faces more than 200 police cases related to violence during last year’s Sabarimala protests.
“The Communists have an issue with our prayers and religion but they can’t crush believers’ rights,” Modi told a rally in Kerala last week.
“We won’t tolerate any attack on a tradition that has lasted thousands of years,” Modi added to wild cheers.
Many women have backed the traditionalist cause.
“Local men and women agree. There is only one issue in this election — our faith. And the court shouldn’t have intervened,” Lakshmi, who works at a local hospital, and only uses one name, told AFP.
“I feel hurt as a Hindu when I see things going against our culture and tradition,” added Bindhu, a housewife.
“The temple has always been a place where women could not go. It is not acceptable to see people coming and fighting to enter now,” she added.
Tens of thousands of people, including many women, took part in street marches and protests in support of the ban.
However, uncertainty remains over how many women will vote for their right to enter Sabarimala.
“Women should be free to choose whether to enter or not. To me, women’s safety, here and all over India, is the only issue that is important,” said Ansa S., a medical student.