January 2016 | Sonia Divyang

Building the future, brick by brick

Backing from the Tata Trusts has enabled thousands of migrant workers, especially in Gujarat, to secure better working conditions, find financial security and transform their lives

For forty-six-year-old Samaru Ram and wife, eking out a living means travelling 1,240km from home in Belgahna, Chhattisgarh, to the brick kilns of Uvarsad on the outskirts of Gandhinagar in Gujarat. The couple have been making this annual pilgrimage for the last 15 years, despite the abysmal living conditions, exploitative work hours and unfair wages; just so that they may return home post the six-month tenure with a lump sum wage that’ll see them through rest of the year.

Dust and heat are a part of life for workers at a brick kiln at Bamroli village of Ahmedabad

Hundreds of workers like Samaru find themselves in the same situation — overworked, exploited and often cheated off their hard-earned wages by the brick kiln owners and labour contractors. However, for the past few years, thanks to the efforts of Prayas Centre of Labour Research and Action (PCLRA), Samaru and his wife saved Rs25,000 (approximate US$375) that helped them survive through rest of the year.

A fight for survival
The brick kiln industry is one of the most unorganised sectors in India. Workers belong mostly to scheduled caste or scheduled tribes — the most marginalised communities in India with little or no access to education, health care and livelihood opportunities — and are recruited against a loan by labour contractors or employers. The workers repay the loan by working at the kilns.

“During the tenure, the workers stay bonded to the owner, sustaining on living expenses. Though illegal, bonded labour is endemic to the brick industry,” says Ramesh Srivastav, legal coordinator, PCLRA. The centre has been working with migrants in over 700 kilns across Gujarat.

Located mostly in northern and central Gujarat, the kilns employ workers from poor communities in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and parts of Gujarat. The workers are mostly landless labourers or small-time farmers affected by shrinking land holdings and decreasing farm yield that have made agriculture unsustainable. To escape scarcity and poverty, these workers often end up working in labour-intensive fields like brick kilns or construction sites.

Wheels of change
As these industries operate in an informal manner, away from the purview of government agencies, workers like Samaru get the raw end of the stick. “The average working day consists of 12-16 hours with no access to even basic amenities such as comfortable housing, clean drinking water and sanitation. Workers typically live within the kiln and are exposed to high levels of toxic substances. Violence, including beating and abduction of family members, is common. Child labour, too, is rampant,” says PCLRA project director Sudhir Katiyar.

However, sustained campaigns by nonprofits have helped change the condition of migrant workers. Prayas Centre, which has been working with migrant labourers for the past eight years, has succeeded in empowering workers by educating them of their rights and helping them form unions to fight for their dues.

Gradually, but perceptibly, the wheels of change have started turning. Since 2008, over 3,000 workers have registered with Int Bhatta Mazdoor Union; wage hikes of up to 70 percent have been awarded, benefitting more than 100,000 workers. Other metrics, too, point to the success of the targeted campaigns. Over 1,000 migrant workers have been released from bondage and workplace-related complaints such as physical abuse and denial of wages have dropped by 50 percent. To prevent workers from falling into the trap of the labour contractors, the centre has now spread its footprint to source areas to educate migrant workers.

A life of dignity
PCLRA has also succeeded in bringing migrant workers under the government’s welfare net by providing them access to education, health and early childhood care. “Our efforts have benefitted over 50,000 workers employed in 300 brick kilns in north and central Gujarat,” says Mr Katiyar. He adds, “Child labour cases have decreased. With rigorous efforts and follow-ups with the government, we were able to start schools at kiln sites. We are also involved in providing midday meals at these schools.”

Workers painstakingly moulding raw bricks in a kiln near Gandhinagar

PCLRA also helped start residential schools at several of these sites that have provided much needed help to the workers. “Earlier our four children would accompany us to the kilns and help us in our work. However, after the labour union established a hostel under the Government of India’s flagship programme of universal education (the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan) in Nagaur district of Rajasthan, my children stay there and continue their education while we work here,” says Sukhdev Bawri, a worker at a brick kiln outside Gandhinagar.

The Tata Trusts’ campaign to improve the lives of migrant workers through nonprofits like the PCLRA in Gujarat has finally borne fruit. Sustained campaigns have brought an end to exploitation and helped them earn a living with dignity.

This article is part of the cover story about the Tata Trusts featured in the January 2016 issue of Tata Review:
Philanthropy fine-tuned
The Tata Trusts has — through integration, use of technology, advocacy, partnerships and more — set course for a renewal aimed at deepening the impact of its numerous charity endeavours
Read the complete articles, and more, in Tata Review
'The Tata Trusts will have to keep renewing itself'
Ratan Tata, Chairman, Tata Trusts, talks about the trusts' evolving philanthropic approach, future growth and priority issues facing India
A flavoured solution
A unique public-private partnership involving the Tata Trusts has ensured that thousands of tribal schoolchildren enjoy wholesome meals
Food way forward
Tackling malnutrition in India is a pressing need, and one of the focus areas for the Tata Trusts
Net gains are cooking
The clean cooking and internet awareness programmes that the Tata Trusts runs with its partners in Gujarat are a reflection of the organisation's intent and impact
In search of that creative edge
Innovation in technology and solutions is crucial in the Tata Trusts quest to enhance the reach and execution of its programmes
Schooled for uplift
A spread of education centres in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand are enjoying a renaissance thanks to a project undertaken with the support of the Tata Trusts
Equity and excellence
Linking the Tata Trusts' initiatives in the education sector to improving the overall quality of life of the community has worked to the advantage of beneficiaries
Harvesting hopes, reaping rewards
A Tata Trusts initiative in the interiors of Maharashtra is providing succour to thousands of poor farmers, who have been encouraged to shift away from the traditional and grow more profitable crops
Rural riches
The rural livelihoods and communities portfolio of the Tata Trusts targets poverty reduction through a host of measures
An urban variant of a rural malaise
The Tata Trusts trained its spotlight on urban poverty and livelihoods as an issue that required focused intervention at a time when most philanthropic agencies were focusing on rural poverty
Going against the flow
Water is considered an elixir in the high ranges of Uttarakhand, and the help rendered by the Tata Trusts and its partners in delivering it has changed lives and fortunes
Mission maximum
The Tata Water Mission has been calibrated to make the most of the social development capabilities residing in the Tata Trusts
Rhythm reloaded
A project in Kutch in Gujarat is, with a push from the Tata Trusts, working to revitalise the folk music tradition of the region by creating new opportunities for musicians practicing the craft
A canvas widened
The media, arts and culture theme of the Tata Trusts concentrates attention of conserving India's civilizational heritage and those who embody it