We recently spoke to our partners in India, Prayas, about the campaign to organise brick kiln workers in India. You can watch the conversation here, and hear first hand from one of the workers about how he was held in bonded labour. Prayas also sent us …

Walton Pantland

We recently spoke to our partners in India, Prayas, about the campaign to organise brick kiln workers in India. You can watch the conversation here, and hear first hand from one of the workers about how he was held in bonded labour.

Prayas also sent us an update which you can read below.

End of brick kiln season 2011-12

A brief review of the progress of brick kiln workers’ struggle in Gujarat

With the monsoons arriving, the brick kiln season is reaching an end. The brick molders (paatla) workers had left one month back. The carriers (bharai, nikasi, khadkan) and firing (jalai) workers have also left for their homes now. The season was remarkable for the high wage increases that workers earned in the season and the large number of cases received by the union.

Wage hike

While some wage hike is normal in every season, the 2011-12 season saw high wage increases ranging from 27 percent to 49 percent for different category of workers. The table below gives wage hikes across different segments of workers

Table: Wage hikes across different category of workers during 2011-12

Work type Unit          Rate in 2010-11      Rate in 2011-12       % age hike Number of workers affected  Incremental wages (in millions of Rs.) 
Brick molding  per 1100 bricks 380  500  32  40,000 173
Bharai  per 16500 bricks 1,000  1,400  40  6,000  35
Khadkan per 16500 bricks 677  1,000  48 2,000  28
Nikasi  per 16500 bricks 1,477  2,200  49  6,000  61
Jalai  per kiln per month (4 workers+1 contractor) 27,300  34,800 27  2,000  18
TOTAL  56,000  315


Note: The incremental wages are calculated assuming that (i) half the hike resulted from Union efforts (ii) a production of 400 bricks per day per brick molder (iii) Union work impacted 400 kilns.

Thus 56000 workers received incremental wages amounting to Rs. 315 millions (£3.64M) because of the Union-led movement. Thus, average wage hike per worker amounts to Rs. 5620 (£65).

The wage hikes have been achieved through collective negotiation. While the union led the process of negotiation for brick molders who constitute two third of the workforce, for other segments of workers the negotiations were led by the associations of labour contractors.

However the union was in constant touch with these associations and the workers. The threat of the union loomed large and owners conceded a high wage increase because they did not want to give the union a chance to intervene, preferring to negotiate with labour contractors. The high wage increase in other categories came about partly because the brick molders had already negotiated a high wage rate.

Case work

The union has received a large number of cases this year that corresponds to an increase over last year. It received 82 cases accounting for a total of 1052 workers. Of these 643 were male and 409 female. Of these cases, 63 have been settled while 19 are pending. The solved cases have resulted into a financial benefit of Rs. 3.08 million (£34.75) to the workers.

The cases fall in two main categories – bonded labour and payment of wages. Bonded labour cases are those where workers are forced to work against an advance against their will at low wages. The cases are filed under the Bonded Labour Act with an Executive Magistrate. The payment of wages cases are those where workers’ payment has not been settled at the end of the work season or the employer refuses to pay the agreed upon wage rate. Cases are filed with the Labour Department under the Minimum Wages Act or Payment of Wages Act as the case may be. Of the total cases, 18 were bonded labour while the remaining fell under payment of wages. The bonded labour cases led to release of 195 workers of which 114 were female and 81 male. Bonded debt mounting to Rs. 1.1 million (£21,713) was extinguished.

One probable reason for the increase in number of cases is the exceptionally high wage increase this year. Normally the workers start with an advance and receive food expenses only during the work. In majority of cases, the final settlement done at the end of the work season left little or no surplus with workers. In fact often the workers end with a negative balance called toot locally. However this year because of high wage hike, most workers ended up with a significant positive balance. This upset the owners’ equation and there were a large number of default cases.

Case studies

Case study 1: Workers paid back full wages after intervention by Union and the Labour Department

Ram Prasad Shankar Lal Chowkidar resident of village Jatawas worked at RK Brick in Adalaj village of District Gandhi Nagarin Gujarat along with a group of workers. The kiln owner is Gopal Prajapati. The group comprised of 12 workers equally divided between male and female.  The labour contractor was his brother in law. The group started working late. It did not take any advance that is the norm. Against this, the contractor offered to pay the group at one and a half times the going market wage rate. However when the time for payment came, the owner refused to settle at high wage rate and tried to pay the market rate only. By this time, the group had accumulated wages of Rs. 121,000 (£1398).  The group refused to take this rate and complained to the union.

The union first tried to negotiate directly with the owner. The owner did not respond positively. An attempt was made by him to settle the outstanding wages against the advance taken by the labour contractor. Finally a complaint was made to the Labour Department for payment of minimum wages. It is noteworthy that for this category of work, the minimum wage rate is higher than the market wages. After four days, the Assistant Government Labour Officer intervened and ensured the payment. The total pending amount of Rs. 121,000 was paid to the workers.

Case study 2: Workers not paid full wages in spite of intervention by Union, Labour Department, and Government

Deena Ram Revat ji Bavri resident of village Kalron, tehsile Medta, District Nagaur worked at RC Bricks in district Kheda molding bricks. The owner was Mukesh & Rajesh son of Magan Makwana. The group comprised of 20 families. The wage rate decided was Rs. 540 (£6.24) per 1000 bricks. When the season ended, the owner did not settle accounts. The outstanding wage bill amounted to Rs. 320,000/- by this time. The work had stopped on April 20. The workers waited for two weeks at the site and then complained to the union.

The union complained to the District Collector to speed up action. He in turn asked the Labour Department to intervene. The Labour Officer visited the site. He settled accounts and asked the owner to pay up. The owner paid up part of the outstanding amount – Rs. 320,000/- (£3695). However he refused to pay up the remaining amount. He produced spurious vouchers claiming that he has paid Rs. 550,000/- (£6352). The owner went to the extent of filing a civil suit against the union, the workers, and the Labour Department accusing them of extortion.

The workers had by now spent a long time out of work. They decided to go back to their homes. The union has been advised by the Labour Department to file a recovery suite in the Labour Court that it intends to do shortly. The workers have also filed a police complaint against the owner accusing him of fraud as he has produced fraudulent vouchers.

This case illustrates the weak power of Labour legislation. Seasoned employers realize this weakness and do not pay up. They prefer to be dragged into courts. The court cases drag on for years defeating the purpose. Therefore the preferred option is negotiation.

Plans for the coming quarter

As the workers have now gone back to their homes, it is planned to undertake mobilisation work in source areas. Cadre training is planned in the month of August in Rajasthan, a major source state.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License.
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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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