These are the true working horses: Spotlight on equines in Asian brick kiln industry

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Loading bricks from a kiln in India.
Loading bricks from a kiln in India. © Brooke

Three international charities are banding together to tackle the welfare, labour and environmental ramifications of South Asia’s brick making industry.

Donkeys, mules and horses transport bricks within the kilns and to locations for use in the construction industry, and provide their owners and handlers with an income. Despite being a key link in the brick making value chain, they are mostly invisible in existing initiatives and policy. In the brick kilns animals don’t have access to nutritious food or clean water and suffer wounds from overloading, overworking, beating, inadequate harnessing and general poor care.

Children as young as five are also part of the brick kiln industry.
Up to 68% of brick kiln workers in South Asia are estimated to be trapped in bonded or forced labour. Children as young as five are also part of the industry. © Brooke

Equine charity Brooke, the Donkey Sanctuary and the International Labour Organisation have come together to start tackling the harmful and often illegal practices that affect millions of people and the working conditions of hundreds of thousands of animals every day.

A new report launched at a high level regional policy event in Nepal this week has highlighted the industry, which until now has been largely invisible to policy makers. The few organisations that have been working to address the issues have primarily done so in isolation.

Brick by Brick: Unveiling the full picture of South Asia’s brick kiln industry and building the blocks for change, calls for greater attention and cross-sectoral action on the brick making sector. The report was officially launched at an event on Thursday and Friday, organised by The South Asia Initiative to End Violence Against Children (SAIEVAC) and hosted by the Government of Nepal.

The traditional brick making industry is the backbone of urban development throughout South Asia. It employs between 4.4 and 5.2 million people and more than 500,000 working animals but the work is extremely hazardous, and generates highly pollutant emissions. Traditional brick kilns also impact on the health of people, animals and the environment.

Up to 68% of brick kiln workers in South Asia are estimated to be trapped in bonded or forced labour, and it is not uncommon to see children as young as five or six involved in the work, some of whom are sent to the kilns unaccompanied by their families. Women are also heavily involved in brick making, exposing them to severe health risks in particular when pregnant. Workers’ dire working conditions and illegal practices in the kilns are made worse by the lack of knowledge about labourers’ rights, extreme poverty and a weak policy and legal environment.

More than 500,000 animals work in the brick kiln industry.
More than 500,000 animals work in the brick kiln industry. © Brooke

Delphine Valette, Head of Advocacy & Public Affairs for Brooke, and co-author of the report said: “We are putting emphasis on how complex South Asia’s brick kiln industry is, and examining the crucial links between human, animal and the environment sectors. We hope the report will encourage collaboration between people who have the power to act, and start off key conversations that can lead to changing the face of the brick kiln industry.”

The Donkey Sanctuary CEO Mike Baker said the report would be a key tool in the charity’s work to raise the profile of these issues on an international level.

“It is an incredibly valuable and important breakthrough to be able to directly link the welfare of working animals, including donkeys, with humanitarian and environmental causes. The evidence and experience gained from this collaborative report will help to influence the future of the brick kiln industry and make a positive and sustainable difference to those who are currently working every day in such difficult conditions.”

According to Richard Howard, ILO Nepal Director, “the report highlights the numerous challenges of ensuring decent work for all workers in the brick kiln industry, particularly in respect to forced labour and child labour.  Despite these challenges, there are opportunities to improve routine monitoring and inspection of the industry and support workers to organize and negotiate for better working conditions and the elimination of child and forced labour.  The SAIEVAC meeting is an important step in this direction.”

The high level policy event, organised by The South Asia Initiative to End Violence Against Children (SAIEVAC) and hosted by the government of Nepal, tooks place in Pokhara over two days, bringing together governments, trade unions, representatives from international non-government organisations (INGOs) and the private sector, to discuss the issues and secure commitments for action from national, regional and global decision makers.

Equines loaded with bricks in India. © Brooke
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