Kantabanji, 25th September: Nearly 5,000 brick kiln workers of Western Odisha today gathered in Kantabanji at a public meeting organised by Shramik Adhikar Manch and Jan Jagran Daadan Sangh. The meeting was held to highlight the problems faced by brick …

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Kantabanji, 25th September: Nearly 5,000 brick kiln workers of Western Odisha today gathered in Kantabanji at a public meeting organised by Shramik Adhikar Manch and Jan Jagran Daadan Sangh. The meeting was held to highlight the problems faced by brick kiln workers both at home and migrant destination and demand action from the state government.

Western Odisha is a major source area of brick kiln workers who migrate to South India every year for six months a year in conditions of distress. The workers migrate from a cluster of 15 blocks around Kantabanji town, coming from districts of Bolangir, Bargarh, Nuapada, Boudh, Sonpur and Kalahandi. It is estimated that nearly 300,000 workers migrate every year. Workers are recruited against monetary advances by local labour contractors, known as sirdars who traffic them to far off locations all over South India. Whole families migrate including children and women. The workers are only paid a food allowance at the work sites. This is linked to their daily production with the result that the whole family, including children, has to work for 12 to 16 hours a day to earn enough to eat. Most workers return famished to their homes with empty pockets to recuperate their strength for another season of back breaking labour.

The workers have been organised under the banner of Jan Jagran Dadan Sangh (JJDS) to tackle the distress conditions that force workers to migrate and under the banner of Shramik Adhikar Manch to get their labour rights. JJDS had given a memorandum to the district administration demanding better implementation of the MNREGA job guarantee scheme, Forest Rights Act, and distribution of land to the landless and development of agriculture of villages. Shramik Adhikar Manch has sought to organise the workers so that they get proper wages at their destination. It is demanding Rs. 400 as the wage rate for pathera workers. It is to be noted that there is a powerful mafia of local labour contractors that gets enormous profits from the supply of labour. The labour mafia suppresses any efforts by workers to get justice. Just this year, Gayatari, a brick kiln worker was beaten very badly by the labour contractor after she returned from Hyderabad in the middle of the season because of violence by the kiln owner. Revti Putel resident of Belpada village Bongamunda block committed suicide along with her three children after being pressurised by the owner to come to work against the bonded debt.

The prominent political leaders who addressed the gathering included Sri AV Swamy, Rajya Sabha MP and Sri Baiajayant Panda MP Kendrapara. It is noteworthy that Sri Panda had visited Hyderabad earlier in the year to look first hand at conditions of brick kiln workers. Amongst the major social activists who attended the meeting included Sri Praffula Samataray of Lok Shakti Abhiyan, Central trade unionist Mr. Ashim Roy, Advocate Bishnu Sharma, Sri Trilochan Punji of Jindabad Sangthan, and Sri Saroj of Paschim Odisha Krishak Sangthan Samanvay Samiti.

Addressing the gathering, Sri Panda expressed full support for workers struggle in Andhra Pradesh. He said that workers must get minimum wages and other due entitlements like PF and proper housing. He announced setting up of a hot line where workers can call in case of distress. Sri Samantray said that the Odisha Government must be held accountable for the distress migration from Western Odisha. Sri Swamy expressed his full support for the demands of the workers. Sri Asheem Roy said that the caste system must be broken up for emergence of a mass workers’ movement. Sri Saroj identified control of upper crust of society on the natural resources as main factor for large scale bondage in Western Odisha.

People presented their testimonies and shared their horrific life story which they are experiencing from decades. They have also expressed that in absence of every basic establishments/infrastructure which are required for basic livelihoods. Therefore they are forced to migrate in distress condition and work as bonded labours.

The main demands of workers are:

Brick kiln workers at the public meeting

Brick kiln workers at the public meeting

  • Efficient implementation of MGNREGA and increase in number of days to 200 in KBK area
  • Distribution of land to the landless
  • Effective implementation of Forest Rights Act
  • Speedy rehabilitation of bonded labourers released in other states
  • Payment of Rs. 400 per 1000 bricks as wages for brick makers and Rs. 200 per 100 bricks for head loaders (current wage rates are Rs. 160-180 and Rs. 80 respectively)
  • Increase in number of general compartments in South bound trains
  • Stopping of illegal extortion at railway stations where brick kiln workers
  • Payment of Rs. 1000 per family per week for food expenses at the brick kilns (currently only Rs. 500 is given)
  • Cheap ration under the PDS for workers in destination areas
  • Brick kiln labourers be enrolled under the Construction Workers Welfare Board
  • Residential hostels be opened for children of brick kiln labourers
  • Opening of office of the Labour Department in AP, periodic visits by Labor Department officers to major clusters of brick kilns in AP, and creation of a separate office of the Joint Labour Commissioner to look after inter-state migrant workers
  • Odisha government should notify wages and other service condition for the migrant workers under section 8 [2] of inter-state migrant workmens act 1979 after consultation with trade unions, migrant workers organisation and social action groups involved in the rights of migrant workers.
  • Setting up of a Wage Labour Exchange to mediate movement of workers

A delegation of workers is going to Bhubaneshwar to meet state officials and hand them over a memorandum of demands. A press conference is scheduled for later in the day at 3 PM at Red Cross hall. The memorandum of demands will given to the Chief Minister of Odisha.

Jan Jagran Dadan Sangh

Shramik Adhikar Manch

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Walton Pantland

South African trade unionist living in Glasgow. Loves whisky, wine, running and the great outdoors. Walton did an MA in Industrial Relations at Ruskin, Oxford, and is interested in how trade unions use new technology to organise.

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