Many children are drawn into working at brick kilns to help pay off family debts; bonded labour is widespread, where people work for a pittance to try to free themselves from debt. But this can be an impossible task. Kiln owners frequently give out loans with high interest or add in living expenses, making it impossible for workers to repay loans on their meager salaries, keeping them ‘bonded’ or ‘indebted’.
Exposed to highly toxic substances from the brick kilns, such as black carbon and carbon dioxide, children are particularly vulnerable to suffering from ill-health such as bone, joint or muscle problems, as well as acute respiratory infections. In one study conducted among brick kiln workers in 2008, rates of chronic bronchitis, asthma and tuberculosis were found to be much higher in young brick workers. Children also suffered from extremely poor nutrition, the numbers of girls with low weight double that of boys. And equally worrying, over two-thirds of children involved in the industry between the ages of 10 and 14 were not attending school and were unable to read or write.
In a recent article, the news agency IRIN has highlighted the situation of youngsters in Shamshatoo on the outskirts of Peshawar, the capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province in Pakistan. Many children here are born to Afghan migrants and since jobs are scarce, their families often work as bonded labourers at nearby brick kilns. Children as young as six can be found helping out their families after class. A quarter of boys at a local school make bricks, their fingernails stained by pigment. Girls in the area fare little better. Although they’re not expected to work at the kilns, many drop out of school to help with household chores or to marry early. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, enrolment for girls at school is a mere 58-72% for 5 to 10 year olds.
Officials hope enrolment rates will improve when a new constitution guaranteeing free education for young children is passed. But even if that happens, bonded adults in poor areas such as Shamshatoo, will still struggle to cope financially and are likely to continue drawing their children into dangerous brick-making work just to put meals on the table.