63 people, including women and children, were rescued by the labour department from a brick kiln in Koppulapalle village of Medak district in Andhra Pradesh, after NDTV reported that the workers were surviving virtually like bonded labour, with even small children put to work, to maximise production and profits for the owner.
That this was happening just 70 km from Hyderabad, a story of sweat, blood and exploitation behind the glamour of high rises and a booming construction industry, has provoked strong reactions from civil society as well.
Andhra Pradesh labour minister Danam Nagender said it was indeed true that the labour was living in inhuman conditions. “We have arranged to send them all back to Odisha as they did not want to continue here. We have also booked cases against the violators,” he said.
NDTV had reached this kiln after workers managed to send across information that one of the men, Maniram, had gone missing after a brawl with the owner. He had been beaten and taken away.
His wife Mithila told us Maniram had been unwell and unable to work. That had angered the owner’s brother, and the two had a scuffle. She said they were virtually being held captive, not allowed to go out and complain or even look for him.
The labourers had been brought here just before Dasara from the most backward districts of Odisha through contractors who had paid upto Rs. 15,000 per person. A family of four that managed to make upto 9,000 bricks in a week, working at least 12 hours a day, would get paid upto Rs. 700.
Almost everyone complained of physical and verbal assault, threats and harassment by the owner, who they said wanted to extract the maximum work from them. NDTV called in the local police who said the workers should have come to the police station and complained, if they were indeed being troubled and tortured by the owner.
The workers say there was 24×7 vigil around the kiln, especially after Maniram disappeared. A young girl, Saroni, broke down as she told NDTV that there was no privacy even to go to the bathroom. “We have to take permission even to go to the bathroom. How can we go out and complain to the police?”
The police have now booked cases of physical assault and persons gone missing against the owner. The labour department officials, who had never visited the brick kiln earlier, found out the owner had no licence to operate.
After NDTV’s intervention, a case under child labour Act was also booked. But officials say this cannot be called bonded labour and have not booked cases under the bonded labour abolition Act. That would have put onus on the officials to rehabilitate the workers.
Krishna, an activist who has been working with brick kiln workers says officials are never ready to accept that it is indeed bonded labour. “It is a classic case. They were brought paying an advance that amounted to loan against which their wages were adjusted. They got less than minimum wages and their freedom of movement was restricted. None of them was free to give up working here and find employment elsewhere. And yet we prefer to deny.”
Isidore Philips, another child rights activist, says acknowledging a problem puts the onus of addressing it. “So denial is always seen as a safer way out.”