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Afghan brick-makers seek break from bonded labour


Afghan brick-makers seek break from bonded labour

Thousands of Afghans work in brick kilns in Pakistan's Punjab province, toiling away from dawn to dusk to meet construction demands. Despite the harsh conditions, many of them are unable to repatriate because they are indebted to the kiln owners - a situation UNHCR is hoping to change.
20 December 2006
Afghan brick-makers at a kiln in Tarnol on the outskirts of Pakistani capital Islamabad.

TARNOL, Pakistan, December 20 (UNHCR) - They have been called the building blocks of Pakistan, making bricks from dawn to dusk to help fuel the country's growth. But the Afghan brick-makers in places like Tarnol are themselves walled in by poverty and debt in a foreign land.

Life is hard for the 200 Afghans who work here on the outskirts of the Pakistani capital, Islamabad. They live in flimsy huts in an industrial wasteland littered with smoke-spewing chimney stacks. Work starts after the morning prayers and ends with the sunset prayers. Children start working as early as five or six years old.

"When my children are old enough, they will also work here. Everyone wants their children to go to school, but what else can we do?" said Dad Khan, a 28-year-old father of four from Nangarhar province in eastern Afghanistan. The family moved to Tarnol five years ago, after Khan's father died in Shamshatoo camp in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province.

"We are 60,000 rupees [US$1,000] in debt," he said. "My five brothers and I work in this kiln, but there are so many expenses, it's hard to pay back anything. My wife is sick, so most of the money goes to her medicine." Making just 150 to 200 rupees a day, it will take years for him to repay his debt.

"Many Afghans here face this problem," said Qaiser Siddiqi, who works with SHARP (Society for Human Rights and Prisoners' Aid), a UNHCR-funded legal clinic for Afghans. "They borrow money from the brick kiln owners to build a house or for medical bills, which leads to bonded labour. They often have no official documents and are afraid to venture out, so they're caught in this vicious cycle of poverty and indentured labour."

The brick-making process is long and tedious. First, mud is carted in on wheelbarrows, mixed with sand and kneaded by foot. The dough is pressed into moulds and left to dry in the sun before the bricks are baked in kilns for 24 hours. Rains often soak the bricks before they dry, and the workers have to start again.

The community at Tarnol makes 700,000 bricks a month and is paid 140,000 rupees by the kiln owner for their collective labour. The same bricks sell for more than 10 times this amount in the construction market.

"The work is irregular - three months on, two months off," said Khan. "We can't work if it rains, or if it's too hot or too cold. During those times, we do nothing. We just sit and gather more debt."

His Pakistani neighbour, Mohammed Ikram, said that "once it gets to 2,000 rupees, the debt goes on and on, it just grows. I'm now 20,000 rupees in debt and it's not going away. One of my relatives had to sell his kidney."

A survey released by UNHCR in April last year found there were more than 3,700 Afghan brick kiln workers in Pakistan's Punjab province alone. Some 80 percent of them said they had received loans from the kiln owners, with the majority borrowing 50,000 rupees or less. About half of the families earned between 3,500 and 5,000 rupees a month. Many of them had lived in Pakistan for more than 20 years, but most had been in the brick kilns for five years or less.

More than half of these workers hail from the Afghan provinces of Nangarhar, Kabul and Kunduz, which are the top three areas of return this year. Almost all those interviewed said they would return to Afghanistan if they had any work prospects in their areas of origin, including jobs in brick kilns.

To protect their rights while in Pakistan, SHARP has conducted training and awareness sessions in the kilns. "Their complaints usually involve police harassment," said Siddiqi. "Surprisingly, the issue of bonded labour has not come up. The Afghans here are caught in a conundrum - they are desperate, but also grateful to the brick kiln owners for supporting them."

Several families here have managed to pay off their debts and repatriate to Afghanistan, but those who remain feel like they have run into a brick wall. An injection of cash could go a long way towards solving their problems in exile.

UNHCR has mobilised resources to try and help. When the assisted repatriation season resumes in the spring, homebound Afghans will receive an enhanced assistance package. According to a census of Afghans in Pakistan conducted in March last year, some 55 percent of Afghans are daily wage earners. UNHCR hopes that the assistance package will help bonded Afghans like Dad Khan to redeem their lives and build new ground back home in Afghanistan.

More than 2.87 million Afghans have repatriated from Pakistan with UNHCR assistance since 2002. An estimated 2.4 million Afghans are still living in Pakistan today.

By Vivian Tan and Asif Shahzad in Tarnol, Pakistan