Unravelling the cycle of bonded labour in Afghanistan

According to a new ILO report launched in Kabul on 7 February 2012, Afghan brick kilns heavily rely on debt bondage of adults and children. Even when families make progress toward paying back loans, the perpetual need for more advances (often for medical purposes or basic necessities), keep most families tied to their employers. Bonded labour of adults and children in brick kilns is one of the most prevalent, yet least known forms of hazardous labour in Afghanistan. The new ILO study on the phenomenon, Buried in Bricks, marks the first attempt to provide a better understanding of the dynamics of bonded labour in two provinces of the country, Kabul and Nangarhar.

Actualité | 7 février 2012

Adult and child bonded labourers work 10 to 15 hours six days a week, 12 months a year, performing physically demanding tasks in harsh conditions. Households depend heavily on the labour of children; even young children, by performing unseen tasks, increase the overall productivity of the household. A detriment to child health and development, kiln work creates a vicious cycle of debt where families have an increasing need for loans to address health issues brought on by their work and living conditions.
The ILO report demonstrates that the problem with bonded labour lies not only in the conditions endured by bonded labourers on a daily basis, but also in the different cycles perpetuated by this labour relationship of bondage and servitude, namely the cycles of debt, vulnerability, dependence and poverty.
“How long can we live this way, in this poverty?” asked a 26-year old bonded labourer in Deh Sabz. Future is gloomy for those families and the problem is complicated to address. “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 Mr Berger, the ILO Representative in Afghanistan during the press conference held in Kabul.

Bonded labour of adults and children in brick kilns is one of the most prevalent, yet least known forms of hazardous labour in Afghanistan. The new ILO study on the phenomenon, Buried in Bricks, marks the first attempt to provide a better understanding of the dynamics of bonded labour in two provinces of the country, Kabul and Nangarhar.

“We prefer this system (debt bondage) as it ties the workers to us; we give them this advance so that we are sure that they will stay and work for us as we need workers all year round. Plus we tell them that they are not allowed to go and work elsewhere. They have freedom if they want to see a doctor, go to school, but that’s basically it.”, says one of the kiln owners interviewed in Surkhroad.

Adult and child bonded labourers work 10 to 15 hours six days a week, 12 months a year, performing physically demanding tasks in harsh conditions. Households depend heavily on the labour of children; even young children, by performing unseen tasks, increase the overall productivity of the household. A detriment to child health and development, kiln work creates a vicious cycle of debt where families have an increasing need for loans to address health issues brought on by their work and living conditions.

For 70% of households, all members of the family are restricted from employment outside of the kiln until the loan is repaid. “We know that our employees cannot really work enough to pay off the debt. But we cannot add pressure on them; it might take more than 3 or 4 years for them to pay back what we lent them. In that case they can either work all those years or find another employer who will pay us the loan to see them released from their responsibilities here.”, admits another kiln owner from Surkhroad.

The ILO report demonstrates that the problem with bonded labour lies not only in the conditions endured by bonded labourers on a daily basis, but also in the different cycles perpetuated by this labour relationship of bondage and servitude, namely the cycles of debt, vulnerability, dependence and poverty.

I do not know how many loans we have taken these past years”, says Nikbibi.” We are permanently in debt, with so many loans that I have stopped counting. We get money from one person, then from a second person to pay the first person, then a third person, and the list goes on.” The most obvious cycle is that of debt. With intergenerational transference of debt, children have no choice but to follow in the footsteps of their parents. At the same time, basic poverty issues and subsistence needs force families to take loan after loan, often paying for their winter’s food with a loan that they spend an entire season paying back.

Most families in brick kilns fell into debt to meet basic needs when seeking refuge in Pakistan. The vulnerability these households experienced as migrants is perpetuated by the exploitation of the brick kiln industry to the point that families, upon return to Afghanistan, have little chance of reintegration.

The dependence of bonded labourers on their employers is obvious: with little access to land or shelter due to their migratory background, families are bound to their employers not only by the terms of their contracts but also by the fact that they cannot obtain shelter by other means. They are therefore dependent on employers at the most basic level: to provide for a roof for their families, which acts as a big incentive and also a form of implicit coercion. The most extreme and widely cited penalty these bonded labourers can be subject to is the loss of their shelter.

Last but not least, bonded labourers are entangled in the cyce of poverty. Faced with the challenge of meeting basic subsistence needs, families cannot afford to send children to school and therefore lose the income brought by their work. As a consequence, child bonded labourers do not acquire the necessary skills to break the cycle of poverty and are bound to repeat the same cycle with their children as adults; the same is true with adults who have no access to any skills development or training beyond the work that they have been repeating each work season. As a result the cycle of illiteracy and lack of skills ties into the cycle of poverty, debt, vulnerability and dependence.

“How long can we live this way, in this poverty?” asked a 26-year old bonded labourer in Deh Sabz. Future is gloomy for those families and the problem is complicated to address. “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 Mr Berger, the ILO Representative in Afghanistan during the press conference held in Kabul.

For more information, read the full report, the executive summary and the interview with Sarah Crammer.