A new United Nations-backed survey has found that most workers in Afghanistan’s brick kilns are bonded child labourers, and calls for a strategy that will both provide relief to bonded families and help them escape the cycles of debt, dependence and poverty.
The survey, “Buried in Bricks: Rapid Assessment of Bonded Labour in Afghan Brick Kilns,” found that 56 per cent of brick makers in Afghan kilns are children under the age of 18 and 47 per cent are 14 or younger.
In addition, the brick kilns rely almost entirely on debt bondage and workers and their families are tied to a kiln by the need to pay off loans taken for basic necessities, medical expenses, weddings and funerals.
“Faced with never-ending debt, families feel they have to use all available labour, even if it is to their long-term detriment, to make daily ends meet. It is out of necessity and extreme poverty that households enlist their children from an early age to work in the kilns,” stated Sarah Cramer, lead author of the survey, which was commissioned by the UN International Labour Organization (ILO).
“There are four cycles prevalent in the situation of bonded labour in Afghanistan – the cycle of debt, cycle of vulnerability, cycle of dependence and the cycle of poverty,” she added in an online interview published by ILO.
Article 49 of the Afghan Constitution prohibits bonded labour while the Afghan Government has also ratified ILO Convention 182, which came to force in Afghanistan last year and identifies bonded labour as one of the worst forms of child labour.
The survey, conducted between August and October last year in Nangarhar and Kabul provinces, found that 64 per cent of the families contacted had worked in the kilns for 11 years or more and 35 per cent for more than 20 years. Nearly all households fell vulnerable to debt bondage while living in Pakistan as refugees or migrants.
Both adult and child labourers work more than 70 hours a week, in very poor conditions. Average daily wages are between 297 and 407 Afghanis ($6.23-$8.54) for an adult and 170-278 Afghanis ($3.57-$5.82) for a child.
“It is extremely difficult for a bonded labourer to leave the vicious cycle of debt as the wages paid are too low to allow the advance to be fully paid off by the end of the season,” said Ms. Cramer. “What’s more, there are few if any other local employment opportunities available.”
She pointed out that the “arduous” nature of brick making – mostly done in a crouching position, in which workers are constantly exposed to the sun, heat and blowing dust – and low wages make it difficult for brick kilns to recruit and retain labour.
“By using a system of advances on future wage payments that bond labourers and their families, kiln owners are able to ensure a regular labour supply at low cost,” she stated.
The survey report identified bonded labour as an economic problem and emphasized formulating a comprehensive strategy that focuses on improving conditions and providing workers with tools to escape from the cycles of debt, vulnerability, dependence and poverty.
“While a worst form of child labour, we need to resist the temptation to immediately ban this form of child labour because doing so would worsen the lives of those concerned and drive the practice underground,” said Hervé Berger, the ILO Representative in Afghanistan.
“The issue of bonded and child labour is at its core an economic problem that requires economic solutions. We need to work together with the Government to find holistic responses to this phenomenon.”
Ms. Cramer added that development actors need to provide both short-term humanitarian aid for immediate relief to bonded families and longer-term programmes to help them transition to more sustainable livelihoods and break the inter-generational cycle of bonded labour.