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20 Jun 2018 | Blog

Hidden Contributors in Kilns Perspective from Dhading District

Luja Mathema, Sugat Bajracharya, Kamala Gurung & Sanjay Sharma

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A female brick worker transports baked bricks from a kiln in Biratnagar Picture By: Sanjay Sharma

The number of brick kilns is burgeoning in Nepal: even from ICIMOD’s rooftop you can see chimneys smoking away in the distance. To decrease pollution from these kilns, ICIMOD created the Clean Brick Initiative in 2014. Recently we took the next step and formed a team with the Federation of Nepal Brick Industries (FNBI) to study the gender and socio-economic aspects of working and living in the kilns. We recently conducted a rapid gender needs assessment in Dhading for further research.

An hour and a half after crossing the congested roads in Kalanki, the landscape turned into bare stretches of mud, with bricks laid out to dry on the ground in rows and stacked for collection. Our team visited four kilns and talked to workers, owners, and naikes (middlemen). Most workers complained of drudgery and we found they were regularly exposed to very high levels of brick dust. When we disaggregated information on the brick processing chain we found that Nepali workers had mostly jobs that might be characterized as “unskilled labor” (for example, molding green raw bricks and transporting loads). Indian workers tended to hold jobs that are supervisory or that might be characterized as “skilled labor” (for example, we found that most fire-masters, who monitor the temperature in kilns, are Indian). We also found that male workers were part of all levels of the brick processing chain, from molding, transporting (with and without animals), and stacking raw bricks to working as fire-workers and supervising these processes. However, most women were molders and transporters, which are considered the lowest skilled jobs.

Before the field visit, we were unaware about the power of naikes, who are invariably male and play a dominant role in the kilns. Naikes have bargaining power with the owners and can change the working and living conditions of workers. This bargaining power comes from the fact that they recruit the labor force at the kilns from various districts in Nepal and India, a process that has become increasingly difficult as many people have left to work abroad. As such, owners try to keep them satisfied: Depending on the number of workers they’re able to bring in and the workers’ productivity, they usually receive a commission on top of their monthly salaries. Naikes told us that if they weren’t happy with owners, they could simply take their workers to another kiln.

Many of the workers from Nepal are from Rolpa and Rukum and migrate seasonally to work in the kilns from October to May. They come in search of better-paying jobs and, in some cases, better access to health care for a range of health issues, from diabetes to reproductive issues. Despite the poor living and working conditions in kilns, we found workers appreciated basic amenities such as water, fuelwood, and electricity, which contrasted with the complete lack of basic services they described in their home districts.

A female brick worker molds bricks in Dhading
Picture By: Luja Mathema

Our team also looked at the living conditions of the workers in their temporary settlements around the kilns. We looked at hygiene and access to markets, healthcare, education, and childcare. We were alarmed by the open septic tanks, which workers noted was both a health and safety hazard. Workers noted that alcoholism was also common, mostly among male workers, rendering workers incapable of carrying out their tasks, leading to unproductivity, safety hazards for themselves and others (some attempted to work while drunk), and instances of resultant domestic abuse described to us. We were told that although owners have tried to ban alcohol or drinking during the day, these measures are often unsuccessful.

During interactions, workers were generally happy to share their experiences and the field visit opened our eyes to the realities of working and living in the kilns. For example, it illustrated the importance of conducting health awareness programs (to alert workers and owners of the negative effects of dust and the importance of masks) and the need for specific programs for women (to address issues like pregnancy and chronic stomach pain), which is separate from work-related health issues and injuries that men described. It also shed light on ways to create change. We realized, for instance, that the power of naikes and their bridging role between workers and owners means they will be invaluable in any measures to improve working and living conditions in these kilns. The labor workers are the hidden contributors to building blocks of our society and the assessment highlighted ways to create positive change.

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