Sunday, August 21, 2011

The modern day slaves

Entire families working at brick kilns are trapped in debts that they can never pay off...

By: Salman Nizami.

The labour boss stood looking down at a man named Ghulam Rasool Mir and his four sons squatting in the dirt, the boys mechanically rolling and slapping mud as they made line after line of dull gray bricks. “See, there’s a sad story,” the boss, Gul Mohammad , said as he pointed to the oldest son of Ghulam Rasool Mir , Suhaib Ahmed , 18. He said the young man had twice escaped to join the brick work , but when his father needed another loan from the owner , he forced him to bring his son back to work. “His father came to me asking to borrow more money,”Gul Mohammad said. “I told him: ‘No. You must bring your son back here. Or else bring me the money you owe me and leave the house I have provided you.” The young Qayoom Ahmed listened impassively to the tale of his unhappy return to the Pulwama District of Kashmir province. “I was 7 years old when I started this work,” he said later, when the boss was gone. “My family owed 5,000 rupees then. Today, we owe 50,000 rupees.” They are indentured servants, bought and paid for by Gul Mohammad, who purchased their contracts from a kiln owner in Bandipora, where they had been living in the rental house. Like tens of thousands of Kashmiris, they are trapped in a seemingly endless cycle of poverty that keeps them indebted to their employers a situation common at many of the dusty brick kilns that dot the countryside, as well as in some other industries, particularly in rural areas. After decades of violence Kashmir has few banks, and most of them have high interest rates , and the people who labour at the kilns would almost surely be too poor to qualify for loans. Instead, they borrow from their employers, who generally pay them pennies an hour for their grueling labour barely enough to survive and too little to pay off debts that only grow with each passing year. For a vast majority of workers, there is no escape for them or for their children, who are bound by their parents’ contracts. Their best hope is that the boss will sell their contract to another kiln, where they might be paid more. No matter what, the loan will follow them. In some cases, children are held as their parents’ collateral. Shahnawaz Ahmed a labour said for many days I stood next to roads and asked people for Job, but always ended up disappointed. I couldn’t go home empty handed and disappointed my starving children, so I joined the brick industry, because I am illiterate, no one will give me a job, I am illiterate because of the conflict and poverty, I didn’t go to school because my parents wanted me to work .My children also don’t go to school and they’ll also be brought up illiterate like me . It is not illegal for children younger than 18 to work long hours or do labour, and the government says it is trying to provide education and help to families so they do not have to send their children to work at the kilns. The use of Child Labour is a concern of state government. Yet kiln owners and contractors say bricks made by children are routinely used in many government projects.

“I don’t like this job,” he said. “I want to go to school and to become a doctor to serve my people and my country.” There are 20 kilns in the Pampore District alone, with an average of 150 to 200 children working in each one, according to Haji Ghulam Mohammad owner of Haji brikes. “These children in the kilns work in a state of near slavery,” said Sharief Bhatt Programme Manager Save the children. “Not only do they suffer from the extreme weather, they are breathing in the smoke from the kilns every day,” butt said. “It leads to one of the highest death rates in the country from pneumonia and acute respiratory infections.” Farooq Ahmed’s troubles began 20 years ago when he took a loan from a kiln owner to marry. (The elaborate marriage and funeral ceremonies expected by kashmiris frequently cost several years’ worth of wages, forcing many people to take out loans that they must work off.) Farooq soon realized that his weekly earnings in the kiln left little or no money to pay down the principal. As his family grew, he like other workers here found himself having to borrow more money to pay for medicine for his children and other basic needs. His debt to the owner grew greater by the year. The kiln owner pays farooq and his four sons about Rs 200 for the 1,000 bricks they make in an average day. The owner can usually make Rs 5000 selling that many bricks. The kiln manager and labour boss defend their practices, saying they have helped many workers who, like farooq were poor kashmiris stranded in brick kilns in kashmir. “They were begging in Srinagar streets ,” Ghulam Rasool said. “I paid their loans and brought them back to their own place. Once they finish their loan, then they can leave to work at any other place .” He also noted that owners provided houses, electricity, beds, blankets, water and cash for workers’ family expenses, and served as a safety net with more loans when family members fell ill. The workers say the houses and handouts are a blessing and a curse, keeping them alive but eternally bound to the kilns and the difficult, low-paying jobs. “We are slaves here because when you owe someone money, then of course you’re a slave,” said Mir Aslam who works in the kilns with his children. “If we try to raise our voice, then the owner of the brick kilns will tell us to empty their house and go from here.” Deputy commissioner Pulwama Shafat Noor , said he had recently been transferred to the area and was not familiar with the conditions the workers laboured under. He estimated, however, that at least 2,000 children worked in the kilns in his district. “I know this not good for kids,” he said . “But we have to build our buildings, build our state .” He added that the work provided income for the children’s families. Even Ezabir Ali associated with ATHWAS agrees, to a point. “It is easy to say, ‘Take them from the kilns,’ ” she said, but added, “If you take away supplemental income from a poor family, then that has to be replaced with something.” The young Ashfaq Ahmed wants to get married soon. But he looks at his father, trapped in the fields of brick for 30 years. “I will have to borrow money to get married,” he said. “But I am afraid if I borrow money from the kiln owner, then I will have to work here forever.”