Attack on Volunteers Investigating the Condition of Workers at Brick Kiln in AP

March 19, 2013

The brick kiln of Mr.Venkataswarlu in Tukkuguda village of Maheshwaram block is one of the numerous brick kilns that dot the region surrounding Hyderabad, feeding the insatiable hunger of construction industry and the real estate boom in and around the city. However much like the woeful tales of the other such kilns, the workers toil in conditions of bondage or semi-bondage, facing an ordeal of extreme hardship, overwork and gross underpayment even while they face terror and physical abuse from owners to comply and work.

Couple of days back, one of the activist who is working on the issues of the brick kiln workers received a desperate call for help from one of the brick kiln worker. The worker brought to his attention incidences of violence inflicted on workers by the brick kiln owners and measly payment of wages. Following this call it was decided that a team of volunteers comprising of activists, research students and faculties from University and other institutes of Hyderabad would visit the site of the brick kiln in order to investigate and probe the complaints by the aggrieved workers.
The following team of volunteers were constituted for the visit:

1) Krishna ( Brick Kiln Worker’s Union )
2) Bagmi Priyadarshini( Hyderabad Central University)
3) Tathagatha Sengupta ( Sanhati)
4) Mahaprajna Nayak ( Hyderabad Central University)
5) Sayantan Mondal ( Hyderabad Central Univerisity)
6) Sudipto Muhuri ( Sanhati)
7) Subhadeep Kumar ( Hyderabad Central University)

Various different media houses were also contacted so that they could also join in to highlight the issue. However none of the mainstream media establishments deemed it worthy of coverage and excused themselves for one reason or the other. So finally on 16th of March the team of volunteers reached the site of brick kiln at around 2.30 pm. Many of the workers- men and women, came forward to share with the team their woeful plight, narrating how they were forced to work on an average of 14-16 hours a day, stretching into the late hours of night. All the workers had been brought in from parts of Western Odisha by contractors in Odisha who exchanged these workers with the contractors and brick kiln owners of Andhra Pradesh for a bondage amount ranging from Rs10000- 15000 per person which was paid as “advance” to the workers for bringing them to work in the kiln . Their malnourished bodies were testimonies to the severe physical hardships and inadequate diet that they managed to consume in the brick kiln. While on an average each person was making around 700-1000 bricks per day at the kiln, they received payment of Rs100-150/ – per week for all their sweat and toil from the owners. This is flagrant violation of the minimum wages act, according to which the minimum stipulated wages is Rs-389/- for preparing 1000 bricks. All of the workers, who came forward to share their grievances expressed their desire to leave this exploitative conditions of work at the brick kiln and go back to their homes in Odisha. During their entire stay of last three months at the kiln they had constantly faced intimidation and threat of physical violence and verbal abuse from the owners. This created an atmosphere of terror which forced them to work in such inhuman conditions. Some of them narrated how they were physically assaulted and beaten up in instances when they tried to raise their voice against such conditions of work.
From this entire interaction with the workers it was clear that in this kiln the workers were working under conditions of bondage and like many of the kilns in the region, the kiln owner was seriously flouting the legal provisions enlisted in the Bonded Labour Act.

According to the definition given in section 2(g) of the Act, bonded labour means service arising out of loan/debt/advance. It represents the
relationship between a creditor and a debtor wherein the debtor undertakes to mortgage his services or the services of any of his family members to the creditor for a specified or unspecified period with or without wages accompanied by denial of choice of alternative avenues of employment, or to deny him freedom of movements, then the person would normally be covered under the definition of a bonded labour.

Many women workers reported verbal sexual abuse by the owners. It was also noticed that many children were also employed in making the bricks. It was quite noteworthy that the people took great personal risks to share with the team their testimonies inspite of the constant and threatening presence of the brick kiln owner and his men. All this while that the team was trying to record the testimonies of the workers, the brick kiln owners were distrupting them, questioning their credentials and having verbal altercation with the team members. Inspite of this the vouunteers managed to gather a few testimonies and other informations related to the plight of the workers. After about one hour, the entire team decided to leave with these testimonies in order to meet the concerned government authorities and highlight these different issues which had come forth during this interaction.

While the volunteers got into the vehicle and were preparing to leave, the owners blocked the vehicle, engaging in verbal altercation in one pretext or the other and thus preventing the vehicle to move. Meanwhile many of the workers of the kiln had gathered at a distance witnessing this scene. This situation dragged on for around 10-15 minutes until another vehicle with seven-eight men arrived at the location. These men were brick kiln owners of the neighbouring kilns and their henchmen. They approached the members of the investigating teams, shouting at them and started beating them up. Initially seeing this, many from the group of workers rushed forward to help and save the members of the team from being beaten up. On seeing this some of the brick kiln owners and their henchmen assaulted couple of workers, beating them up very badly. This terrified rest of the workers, who ran away from the spot back to the brick kilns. Meanwhile more owners from other brick kilns and their goons arrived to the spot thus swelling the number of this threatening gang to around 50-60 people. They surrounded the vehicle in which investigating team was supposed to leave. Some of the members of the team tried to use the mobile contacts to somehow contact the police to get rescued from this set of goons. This group of kiln owners and their henchmen hurled abuses and engaged in more beating of the team members. They dragged out some of the members of the team who were seating in the vehicle and threatened with even murdering them. The male members of the team were manhandled and their dress ripped apart. The female members of the team faced nasty verbal sexual abuses. Some of the kiln owners boasted that the labour department officials themselves had instructed the owners to beat up anyone who tried to meet and talk with the workers without their consent. After roughly an hour since these people arrived, three police constables turned up. That is when these people finally let the volunteers of the investigating team to leave. Interestingly enough, the policemen who came, took pictures of the members of the team even while the female members of the teams protested the same. However not a single word or condemnation was uttered by them or any action taken against these set of goons who had been intimidating the team of volunteers all this while. Thus finally this team was able to get out from this scary situation. One can very well imagine the plight of the workers who had dared to speak out against the kiln owner on that day.

Next day some of the team members went to meet the Assistant Commissioner of Police ( ACP) of the Shamsadabad ( Cyberabad) police station with the intention of lodging complaint against the set of kiln owners and their henchmen for their violent assault and threat. Strangely enough the ACP instead of initiating criminal proceeding against the perpetrators of the crime and investigating the charges of bondage and use of violence against the workers, singled out one of the members of the team ( Krishna ) accusing him of blackmailing the brick kiln owners.

This whole incident once again highlights the seriousness of conditions of the migrant brick kiln workers who are badly trapped in conditions of bondage and are facing severe exploitation in the prevailing circumstances. It also points to the nexus of the powerful lobby of these brick kiln owners and the contractors who are functioning like a mafia with a covert understanding with sections of administration and police. The ruling neo-liberal dispension at the helm seems happily oblivious to the plight of this vast section of the workers. After all, such conditions of forced labour suits their interests perfectly- ensuring that the wage rates are ridiculously depressed and the tiny shining upper crust’s burning appetite for growth is fed without restraint.