Brick Kilns As Epicentre Of Exploitation And Environmental Pollution ...

The cruel conditions within which brick kiln workers operate and the environmental damage by brick kilns is nothing less than inhumane.

Brick Kilns As Epicentre Of Exploitation And Environmental Pollution
Caption: Brick kiln workers face numerous health diseases due to work in abysmal conditions

The brick kiln workforce is one of the most economically vulnerable and institutionally neglected groups. These labourers work in an exploitative environment and in pathetic conditions.

Kashif is a father of five children learned the profession of brick laying from his late father. He earns just PKR 800 per day. He comes to the Kiln and starts kneading mud until it becomes clay-ready for making bricks(unbaked). 

“Under blazing sun and nearby blazing Kiln, the working conditions are just like a living hell,” said Kashif.

While divulging into financial details, Kashif lamented that despite working from dawn to dusk, the daily income is not enough to meet both ends. Besides, when faced with diseases, he takes loans from the Kiln owner and that loan has chained him forever to that living hell. The brick layer in question minced no words and said once trapped in loans, it is very difficult to come out of this vicious circle.

Various kiln owners accused kiln workers especially those brick-makers as blackmailers who after taking loans citing financial constraints,leave and join some other kilns just to avoid repayment.

One kiln owner in response to my question as to  why he was not paying proportionate to hard labour done by those in brick-making. He replied that his business was vulnerable. Rains usually destroy bricks(unbaked –sun dried) worth of lakhs.

And, sometimes, high seasonal winds undermine fire at the kiln(as a result) bricks are not properly baked. Such bricks either do not have buyers or sold at lower price hence can’t afford to give more monetary package to workers in question.

Thus those burning their energies to make and bake bricks are at the bottom of social ladder. 

According to the International Labour Organization (ILO) and National Action and Coordination Group (NACG), Pakistan is the third largest brick producing country in South Asia, producing more than 45 billion bricks per year and there are around 18,000 brick kilns across the country. 

The Director General of Sindh Labour Department, under Sindh Right to Information Act, was sent some questions regarding the number of kilns in the province as well as in Larkana, number of kiln workers, and institutional framework (if any)to build a dam against exploitative environment institutionalised by kiln owners but there was reply from the office in question.

Pakistan National Human Development Report 2020 -The three Ps of inequality:Power, People and Policy, published by the UNDP highlighted historical inequality faced by impoverished sections of society having declared that low-in-come families have little or no access to the healthcare they need;if they face a major illness, they are often compelled to takeout loans to pay for healthcare. 

As per the report, the labour force participation rate has increased overtime, as returns on education -meaning that an increase in skills has not translated into improved employment opportunities.

The Brick Kiln slaves of Pakistan are estimated to be about 4.5 million people, including 1 million children, work in slave-like conditions at around 2,000 brick kilns in Pakistan. 

 According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, children working in brick kilns have a higher rate of mortality, while one in 20 children lose their eyesight. Around 35% of female workers in brick kilns have been victims of torture and harassment, the commission stated in its press release issued on May 27 2021.

Recently, the Frederick Naumann Foundation for Freedom -Pakistan in its recent seminar in Lahore lifted a lid on rampant child labour having declared that ten million and over 30 lakhs and ten million and 20 lakhs boys and girls between 10 and 15 years  respectively have been pushed into bondage due to poverty and inflation.

The participants discovered to their discomfort that 16 and 13 % of boys and girls respectively engaged in child labour are subjected to physical abuse.

Let us not forget the case of Shamoon Mansha that had tarnished the image of the country. Article 11 of the Constitution prohibits all forms of slavery, forced labour and child labour. 

The wood and coal used to be the primary source for fuel in kilns across Pakistan. 

Due to the rising cost of coal, the kiln owners have resorted to using rubbish - (a mixture of plastic bags, rubber etc) medical waste, plastic bags, rubber, etc. The burning of these materials reportedly produces pollutants that include sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, mercury arsenic, lead, etc. Those exposed to the burning of such material are prone to be infected with respiratory diseases. 

The Medical Superintendent at Civil Hospital in Larkana, Dr.Mubashir Ali Kolachi believes that exposure to kilns burning rubber, medical waste and tires, etc does cause pulmonary obstructive diseases like the asthma, silicosis and tuberculosis, and certain skin diseases. 

He spoke about how pockets of population living near brick kilns are vulnerable and that industrial safety measures are needed for the manpower engaged in kilns.

Besides, those aforementioned pollutants contribute to climate crises ultimately causing climate-induced emergencies.

Professor and Public Health Specialist Nazeer Ali Buriro at Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto Medical University(SMBBM) Larkana, belives that brick kilns are suuposed to be 10-20 kilometers away from residential areas and educational institutions. 

There is no disagreement on the fact that the black smoke emissions from kilns are dangerous for humans, the environment, agriculture and more. Despite this, one sees that kilns are operating near residential areas, educational institutions, and agricultural lands in Taluka Bakrani and Taluka Dokri of District Larkana. And it can safely be assumed that situation somewhere else is not different from. 

According to the Sindh Local Government Act, 2013, Schedule –IV –Functions of Union councils and Union Committees (para 33) reads: regulation or prohibition of the establishment of brick kilns/potteries and other kilns within residential areas falls in the domain of the local government.                                 

Some kiln owners were asked about their roles in spreading pollution. Rafique Ahmed and Nisar Ahmed-kiln owners denied the charges having said they do not burn rubber, tires or medical waste. “We have small-scale brick kilns. We use the coal and paddy husk.”

However, one kiln worker on the condition of anonymity disclosed that small –scale kilns do use rubbish.

It is to be noted that rubbish is a mixture of various waste products that include plastic bags,rubber and medical waste. Last June, keeping harmful effects caused by kilns to human lives, trees, plants and birds, the Sindh government decided to survey the brick kilns in the province and made the environmental NOC mandatory. 

Sindh’s (former) Environment Minister Ismail Rahu said that environmental pollution was being spread by burning rubber and tires. The Minister also said that burning of rubbish, rubber and tires in brick kilns was also having a negative impact on the health of the workers working there. The kilns had to be made environmentally friendly. 

As per the policy announced, the officers of the Environment department were to survey the brick kilns in Hyderabad, Mirpurkhas, Nawabshah, Sukkur, and Larkana Division and submit a report at the earliest. 

However, nothing has moved beyond that announcement. In response to my question about the survey being discussed, Rafiq Ahmed Bajwa, a kiln owner, replied that the concerned officers have not visited his kiln for the survey in question yet.

In response to my question about institutional framework in terms of building a dam against brick kilns proliferating pollution, the deputy director Sindh Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) Larkana, Mumtaz Ali Shah said that there is a monitoring mechanism in every context.

On receiving complaints of respiratory issues emanating from brick kilns operating nearby residential areas, three brick kilns in Larkana city and two in Kambar Shahdatkot, were closed. 

When the deputy director concerned was remineded the expert opinion of eatablishing brick kilns 10-20 kilometers away from pockets of population and learning centres; he did not agree with the idea saying it was not viable given the densely populated towns and cities.                   

Regarding the survey announced by the Sindh Environment Minister, the deputy director concerned declared that lack of funding and manpower are the main hurdles.

However, he made it clear that efforts are underway to convert brick kilns to Zigzag technology- a method of firing bricks in a kiln that uses a unique design to reduce emissions of pollutants and increase efficiency.


The writer is a freelance contributor. He may reached at Nazeer tweets at @nazeerarijo.