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Buried in bricks: Bonded labour in Afghanistan

Bonded labour of adults and children in brick kilns is one of the most prevalent, yet least known forms of hazardous labour in Afghanistan. A new ILO study on the phenomenon marks the first attempt to provide a better understanding of the dynamics of bonded labour in two provinces of the country. ILO Online spoke with Samuel Hall consulting, lead author of the study.

Article | 06 February 2012

Buried in bricks: Bonded labour in Afghanistan

Throughout the south Asian brick industry, advances are commonly used to tie workers and their families to a kiln and keep wages low. 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. What’s more, there are few if any other local employment opportunities available.

However, there are still benefits to kiln owners. Households that work as brick makers are provided in-kind payments of shelter, water and electricity. This form of remuneration is the same whether two or ten household members are working. Children also help perform tasks that, while not always visible, make adults more productive. Children help carry water, sweep the workspace and roll the mud into balls for older relatives to mould. At home, they help with domestic activities to free up time for other household members to make bricks.

As donor spending is reduced, the Afghan economy will likely contract, particularly in those sectors most driven by aid and reconstruction spending, including construction, and increasing Afghanistan’s reliance on agriculture. Already operating on razor-thin margins, many brick kiln owners will likely be forced to shut down or further cut their workers’ wages in an effort to compete in price wars in the shrinking market for bricks.

Humanitarian and development actors need to work together with the Afghan government and the social partners to develop a creative, coordinated strategy for breaking the interlocking cycles of debt, poverty and dependency. This strategy should emphasize the use of incentive-based policies to encourage individuals to change their economic activities, rather than command measures that attempt to restrict or prohibit certain types of activities. It should address, amongst other things, access to credit and microfinance tools, land tenure issues, cross-border return migration and access to high quality education for children, so as to break the inter-generational cycle of bonded labour.