Bonded to the brick kiln

man with spade and dirty shirt by a large mound of clay

Bonded labour is the most common type of modern slavery in India affecting millions of people. Much goes unreported and some officials deny that there is any bonded labour. However it is estimated that there are between 10 to 15 million people in bonded labour in India.

Bonded labour or debt bondage is frequently found in India’s brick kilns, but it is also present in many other employment sectors including agriculture, textiles, silk production, bidi (Indian cigarettes), stone and marble quarries, fireworks, carpet manufacturing, matchstick production and mining.

Broken lives in India’s brick kilns

Each year after the rice harvest fails, 200,000 Dalits migrate from western Odisha to the brick kilns around Hyderabad. They migrate in order to pay off the 12,000 rupees (£120) advance given to them by a 'sardar' (labour contractor). As bonded labourers, the workers are, in effect, kept captive. They work 18 hours a day in hazardous conditions, living on-site in shanty huts with no toilets or drinking water. Women often suffer sexual harassment from 'sardars' and owners. 

Children are also exploited in brick kilns because their size means they do not need to bend down and they can walk on top of freshly made bricks without damaging them. They work as part of a 'pathariya' comprising one man, one woman and one or two children.

How bonded labour works

  • An individual or family is forced to borrow money to pay for essentials – whether for a wedding or dowry, or simply much needed medicine – without the means to repay the loan.
  • The money is borrowed from a factory boss or landowner who forces the debtor to work for them with little or no pay until the debt is paid.
  • The labourer is exploited – often working excessive hours in dangerous conditions, no breaks, no holidays, abused physically or even sexually, beaten for the least excuse.
  • Terms of the loan can be changed without the labourer being aware; or other items such as food, shelter or transport are added to the loan.
  • With little or no income, along with the increased likelihood of illness or injury, the labourer may often be forced to take out another loan while still in bonded labour or soon after release.

woman carrying large bricks in a basket on her head