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Working a childhood away in Afghanistan’s kilns

Children as young as five work as brick makers in Afghanistan’s kilns, as poverty and debt keep their families in low-wage bonded labour. Tackling the issue is far more complex than just banning child labour in the kilns, the ILO says.

Feature | 07 June 2012
GENEVA (ILO News) – Eleven-year-old Sima is a seasoned worker with five years of experience in brick making. She works 13 hours a day, six days a week at a kiln in Deh Saby, Afghanistan, alongside two younger sisters – aged five and 10 – and their father.

The kilns provide no protection from the sun and the swirling dust, and the work is hard and hazardous. But, her family has no alternative.

Poverty, limited skills and debt keeps them trapped in low-wage bonded labour, which is pervasive in brick kilns in Afghanistan and elsewhere in South Asia.

Fifty-six per cent of the brick makers in Afghan kilns are children, most of whom started working at the age of seven or eight, according to the ILO’s Buried in Bricks report.

By the age of nine, almost 80 per cent of children in brick maker households are working, according to the survey, which looks at labour practices at kilns in the Afghan provinces of Kabul and Nangarhar.

The cost of child bonded labour is paid over a lifetime through the loss of health, education and opportunities,” the ILO says.
The children work 10 to 15 hours a day, six days a week, 12 months a year. Few of them have ever attended school.

“At five years old, many children begin assisting their elder siblings and fathers in the kiln and at eight, most bonded children are clocking in nearly twice as many hours as the legal adult limit in many European countries,” the report says.

It calls brick making in Afghan kilns “one of the worst forms of labour, for children in particular”.

Of the 215 child labourers worldwide, 115 million are engaged in the worst forms of child labour, according to the ILO.

At the Afghan kilns, children risk respiratory illnesses, poor bone development and early-onset arthritis.

The cost of child bonded labour “is paid over a lifetime through the loss of health, education and opportunities,” the ILO says.

Yet, the UN agency warns that seeking to prevent child labour in the brick kilns is unrealistic at this stage.

“Doing so would worsen the lives of those concerned and drive the practice underground,” says Herve Berger, ILO Representative in Afghanistan.

Extreme poverty and necessity drive parents to enlist their children to work in the kilns from an early age. They usually need the children’s income to help repay the debt that holds them in bondage.

Kiln owners use a system of advances on future wages, which are so low they seldom can be repaid in time. This results in bonded labour which provides kiln owners with a regular labour supply at low cost.

Ninety-eight per cent of the brick makers in the two provinces covered by the report are currently working to pay off debts to their employers.

“My father does not force me to work in the kiln, but we have to work here to repay our debt,” a 15-year-old told researchers in Surkhroad, a district in Nangarhar.

At the age of 10, a child already makes a significant impact on the family income, and at 16, “a child contributes almost as much as experienced adults to the family income,” the report says.

Without education, training or transferable skills, kiln workers – children and adults alike – are ill prepared to do anything besides making bricks. This makes it extremely difficult for them to leave the vicious cycle of debt.

The report urges donors to focus on realistic, low-cost means of relieving the burden of debt and dependence. Acquiring skills such as gardening, sewing and animal husbandry, for example, would help households meet basic needs without taking on additional loans. Self-Help Groups or Community Based Saving Groups can also play an important role by providing means of saving and borrowing, as well as a safety net.

The report also suggests food-for-training programmes that would enable the workers to acquire skills while still receiving an income on which their livelihoods depend.

Describing his hopes for the future, a 10-year-old brick maker said he would like to attend school. That, he said would enable him “to live like literate people.”

“They have better lives than us.”