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Bricks and mortals

The ban on brick kilns, meant to avert smog, is expected to hit the labour the most

Bricks and mortals
Labour rights activists believe that the decision to shut down brick kilns would escalate the number of bonded labour. — Photos by Rahat Dar

The Punjab government has placed a ban on brick kilns across the province, in a bid to counter what is already being termed as Lahore’s ‘5th season’ — smog. The ban is for the period starting October 20 through December 31, 2018.

The anti-smog policy is apparently a preventive measure, but more than two million workers of brick kilns and millions of those associated with the construction industry are likely to suffer directly.

The shocks of the policy are already being felt, as the price of a thousand bricks has increased from Rs8,000 to Rs10,500 in less than a month, while the anti-smog policy has not yet been implemented. There is no guarantee the current price will not go up, as the brick kiln owners seem determined to cover their losses.

The closure of brick kilns is creating a deep sense of despair among the poor labourers because of the possible financial hiccups they are going to face. Unavailability of bricks would definitely hit the construction industry, especially the labour class.

The brick kiln owners believe that the after-shocks of the closure policy can be avoided if the government seriously considers the option they have put on the table.

“Most brick kilns remain closed in the rainy season which usually ends in August or the first week of September, nonetheless a prolonged [rainy] season this year has forced us to keep our kilns shut which is the prime source of price hike,” says Mehar Abdul Haq, Secretary General, All Pakistan Kiln Owners’ Association (APKOA).

“Production of bricks was about to kick off as the rainy season was over, when anti-smog policy hit us,” he adds, lamentingly. “Three months of rainy season and 82 days of the [future] ban could work havoc with the industry.

“We’ve made several requests to the [Punjab] government to reconsider the ban period. The option put forth by us is that the closure period should be either starting October 20 to the end of November, or from the third week of November till the end of December.”

The office bearers of APKOA are not ready to make any commitments that the prices will not increase over the next two months or so. The general practice during the rainy season is that the labourers at brick kilns get one fourth of the wage they normally do. This is called “Baathki” and means that the labourers get their wages without having to work. According to APKOA, the same method would be applied in the upcoming closure period.

The price of a thousand bricks has increased from Rs8,000 to Rs10,500 in less than a month, while the anti-smog policy has not yet been implemented. There is no guarantee the current price will not go up, as the brick kiln owners seem determined to cover their losses.

Muhammad Manzur, a worker at a kiln, rejects the notion of getting paid without doing anything, “During the rainy season we do not get any day off because the owners busy us with katchi bricks which is a full-time job. In return, they pay us a small amount which isn’t sufficient to fulfill our needs.”

When asked as to how they make their both ends meet, he says, “Taking debt from owners is the only option for us.

“The instructions to shut down the brick kilns are creating frustration among the labour class.”

Labour rights activists believe that the decision to shut down brick kilns would escalate the number of bonded labour. Syeda Ghulam Fatima, General Secretary, Bonded Labour Liberation Front (BLLF), considers the decision anti-labour rather than anti-smog, “Rainy season has always been an excuse with the owners to not pay their workers. Unfortunately, the government does not take all stakeholders on board before making any such policies.”

It is the duty of the Punjab Labour Department (PLD) to ensure the payment of minimum wage to the labour. Additionally, social security policy is supposed to provide financial assistance to the labourers who are facing a financial crunch.

“It is obvious that the anti-smog policy will affect both the daily wagers and brick kiln workers. However, those who keep social security cards should get compensation from the PLD,” says Dr Sohail Shehzad, Additional Secretary, PLD.

Only 50,000 out of 2.3 million brick kiln workers have social security cards that they registered in 2011, under pressure from the Punjab government. “The brick kiln owners commit crime by not letting workers register for social security because then they will have to pay them according to the minimum pay scale set by the government,” adds Ghulam Fatima.

The anti-smog policy is apparently a preventive measure, but it shall affect more than two million workers of brick kilns and millions of others associated with the construction industry.

The anti-smog policy is apparently a preventive measure, but it shall affect more than two million workers of brick kilns and millions of others associated with the construction industry.

“Besides, most of the registered workers for social security are not actual workers but family members of the owners.”

In Punjab, 80 per cent construction is dependent on bricks. Therefore, two factors are expected to harm the construction industry in the coming months: first, the unavailability of bricks; and second, the bricks available but at high prices.

“Work on the ongoing construction projects will come to a halt which will not only increase the cost of projects but also render millions of people unemployed against the claims made by the PTI government,” says Akber Sheikh, former chairman of All Pakistan Contractors Association (APCA).

“The shutdown policy is a golden opportunity for brick kiln owners to increase the price of brick which is then not going to decrease ever. Half-baked decisions by the government, without consulting all stakeholders, are only going to create panic and frustration.”

For its part, the government has asked for conversion of kilns to ZigZag technology in order to achieve its target of reducing pollution and avoiding shutdown in the future.

ZigZag technology can help reduce pollution up to 75 per cent because it burns the fuel particles completely. It also reduces fuel wastage because of the ID (Induced Draft) fan. The high thermal efficiency of this technology consumes 20-25 per cent less energy and produces high quality bricks which can generate more revenue. In addition, all types of soil that are suitable to brick production can be used in the technology.

The estimated conversion cost is Rs2.5-3million. Presently, not a single kiln is converted to this technology. However, three new kilns have been constructed that are equipped with the technology. These are situated in Raiwind and Gujranwala.

“We have requested the government to give subsidy on the conversion cost or help us acquire loans at a low interest rate so that the process may take place faster,” says Mehar Abdul Haq.

Ghulam Fatima calls Abdul Haq’s demand as flawed: “The profit of kiln industry is not less than 400 per cent. Though 16 per cent income tax was imposed on kilns in 2011, not many have paid that while the brick price has almost doubled.

“This is a joyous moment for owners but there is no authority to ensure the labour’s rights and counter the unfair price-hike and the resultant damages,” she adds.

Shehryar Warraich

The author is a member of the staff

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