November 3rd, 2020
By Hamid Riaz
On Tuesday, November 3, hundreds of brick kiln workers from all over Punjab staged a protest in front of the Lahore Press Club against the government’s decision to shut down brick kilns from November 7.
According to the workers, while kiln owners have been given subsidies and tax breaks by the government to ease their pain, no such provision has been made for the workers. Since most of the people employed in the industry are Christians shutting down kilns merely two months before Christmas is tantamount to the economic murder of these kiln workers.
Nusrat Bashir, President of the Pakistan Bhatta Mazdoor Federation, says that “City traffic and factories also contribute to the smog affecting Punjab’s major cities yet they have never been subject to closures by the government. Moreover, the government must try to understand that shutting down kilns will snatch away the only source of income from poor kiln workers.”
In addition to opposing the closures, the protestors also demanded that the government ensure the implementation of its laws on minimum wage and bonded labor.
Muhammad Hussain Wattoo, President of the Awami Bhatta Mazdoor Union, stated that “We agree that smog is an issue but the government should not ignore the plight of poor workers. The government has fixed wages for kiln workers but the workers seldom get paid what they are owed. The minimum wage is Pakistan for unskilled workers is fixed at 17,500 Rs but no kiln worker I know of gets paid this much.”
Many minors were also present at the protest. They opined that even though they wanted to attain an education they could not do so because of conditions of abject poverty.
“I have always dreamt of getting an education but because I have to work in the kilns all day I do not have the time or the resources to go to school,” says a 16-year-old girl who has been working at kilns since she was 4 years of age.
“I wake up at 2 am every night and start working at the kilns. I work till the morning and then I go to school. After school, I have to do household chores and take care of the few cattle my family has managed to buy. It’s very hard to focus on my studies because of this,” says a 14-year-old boy who was born into bonded labor because of a loan his father took.
The workers stated that many of them have been working at kilns since their childhood and making bricks is the only skill they know. For this reason, if the government shuts down these brick kilns they will not have any alternate means of earning a living and there is a real threat that many of them will starve.
Even though smog is an extremely pertinent issue and has many harmful impacts on the health of the urban population but shutting down kilns without making proper provisions for the workers who are dependent on these kilns is gross negligence on the part of the government.