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Kamala Gurung, Gunjan Ghimire & Simran Silpakar
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Gunjan Ghimire, Simran Silpakar, and Kamala Gurung
All across the world vulnerable workers have been hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic. Brick kiln workers in Nepal are no exception. The pandemic has exacerbated their preexisting hardships and vulnerabilities.
The brick sector employs a large number of migrant workers from within and beyond Nepal’s borders. Brick kilns in the Terai attract large numbers of migrant workers from the Indian states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Uttarakhand, and West Bengal. A majority of the Nepali workers come from the hills and mountains of Province 6. In March 2020, as COVID-19 cases began to rise in Nepal, kiln workers prepared to return to their home villages. Right then Nepal imposed a nationwide lockdown and enforced travel restrictions. Public bus services were suspended and the borders were closed in both India and Nepal. Workers were stranded in factories and their rented lodgings. Finally, thanks to the coordination between the government of Nepal and the Indian Embassy, more than 50,000 Indian migrant workers – both male and female – were evacuated during the period of April to July.
The lockdown measures brought the brick manufacturing process to a halt and disrupted the supply of raw materials. Brick kilns have been unable to replenish their stock of bricks. This has serious social and economic implications for the more than 125,000 brick workers who rely on brick kilns for their livelihood. It will also hamper the national economy as the brick sector contributes 2 percent of Nepal’s GDP.
Source: Data collected by the Federation of Nepal Brick Industries (FNBI) in July 2020
The brick-making season has begun but the brick sector remains mired in uncertainties. A key source at the FNBI said the mayor of Bhaktapur has advised against operating the brick kilns amid COVID-19 risk. Also, in the absence of Indian migrant workers, who make up a large share of the brick industry workforce, brick kilns lack enough human resources to resume operations. There is already a sense that brick sector operations will remain disrupted for an indefinite period.
On 10 November, Fiscal Nepal reported that 80 percent of brick industries in Nepal are on the verge of collapse due to labour shortages exacerbated by the pandemic. About a week earlier, the national daily Kantipur had published an article highlighting the dependency of the majority of brick industries on Indian migrant workers. To spread awareness of this issue, the Federation of Nepal Brick Industries (FNBI) conducted a social media survey on two different platforms – Entrepreneurs for Nepal Group (113,000+ members) on Facebook, and Reddit-r/Nepal (35,000+ members) – by sharing a snapshot of the Kantipur article.
Respondents of the survey highlighted numerous factors that discourage Nepali workers from taking up jobs in the brick industry. Reasons included lack of training for Nepali workers, hazardous working conditions, poor risk management, and lack of skill enhancement. These shortcomings make Nepali workers reluctant to enter the brick sector, thus increasing the demand for Indian labourers and their skillsets. Respondents suggested that training Nepali workers and upgrading their skills could help fill the void left by Indian migrant workers.
As COVID-19 cases continue to rise, it is unlikely that Indian workers will return to Nepal’s brick industries anytime soon. The first step towards mitigating this crisis would be to start building and enhancing the skills of Nepali workers. Towards this end, we should incorporate brick making training in the curriculum of the Council for Technical Education and Vocational Training (CTEVT). This would widen opportunities for male and female workers and upgrade brick making into a semi-skilled job.
We are working with the FNBI, CTEVT, and MinErgy to develop a brickmaking course to be included in the CTEVT curriculum. The goal is to train Nepali brick workers and make the brick sector reliant on Nepali workers. The standards of brick workers must be raised in order to attract the large numbers of unemployed Nepali youth to the brick industry. Certified brick workers trained at the CTEVT should be able to pursue a career in the brick sector.
At the same time the brick sector has to go through major transformation to entice young Nepali workers. For this, there is an urgent need to improve working and living conditions, carry out proper maintenance of kilns, and move towards clean technology to reduce pollution.
The COVID-19 pandemic has two major lessons for Nepal’s brick sector. First, Nepal should produce adequate numbers of semi-skilled and skilled brick workers through proper training and skill development. And second, the brick sector should become environmentally and socially responsible to attract young Nepali workers. If the brick sector could heed these lessons, a large section of Nepali youth could earn their livelihood at home rather than migrating abroad to take up precarious jobs.
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Amina Maharjan & Surendra Raj Joshi