Sunday June 23, 2024

Brick by brick

However, the industry and its employees face various issues, including bonded labour

By Ali Rehmat Shimshali
April 08, 2024
View of a brick kiln factory. — Facebook/Sunrise Brick Factory/File
View of a brick kiln factory. — Facebook/Sunrise Brick Factory/File

The brick kiln industry in Pakistan is a highly profitable sector. With over 20,000 brick kilns, the country is the third-largest brick producer in South Asia, employing approximately 4.5 million individuals across 20,000 brick kilns, yielding a staggering 45 billion bricks annually.

However, the industry and its employees face various issues, including bonded labour. Despite being outlawed decades ago, this form of forced labour persists due to a myriad of administrative, legal, policy, and social hurdles that hinder workers from breaking free from their debts.

The environmental impact of brick kilns is also an important issue. Despite directives from the Supreme Court to adopt more eco-friendly technologies like zigzag kilns, plant owners fail to implement the orders due to financial concerns and lack of awareness. The brick industry accounts for a staggering 20-25 per cent of global air pollution and is a significant cause of global warming. In Pakistan, bricks are hand-made and baked in fixed chimney bull’s trench kilns (FCBTK) that contaminate the air, leading to social and environmental impacts such as air pollution, climate change, cardio-respiratory diseases, land use impacts, and deforestation.

The contamination includes sulphur oxides, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide (CO2), forms of particulate matter (PM), including black carbon, and additional compounds released by burning coal and other fuels.

Efforts to mitigate these environmental and social challenges are underway, with initiatives aimed at transforming brick kilns into cost-effective carbon-emission reduction technologies. By implementing techniques such as zigzag technology, which has shown promising results in reducing emissions and improving energy efficiency, brick kiln owners can not only enhance profitability but also contribute to social and environmental responsibility. This shift to new technology offers a win-win situation, improving air quality, reducing health risks for workers and nearby communities, and aligning with Pakistan’s global commitments to sustainable development and carbon emission reduction.

Pakistan has updated its climate commitments in its revised nationally determined contributions (NDCs) for 2021, emphasizing the reduction of carbon emissions, particularly in sectors such as health, waste, and air pollution. The brick kiln industry, a significant contributor to air pollution, is highlighted as an area needing attention due to its impact on the health of workers and nearby residents.

However, challenges in implementing these commitments have been identified, with adaptation efforts requiring extensive financial investment across various sectors affected by climate change.

Pakistan has committed to implementing 27 international conventions relating to human rights, including the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) eight conventions on labour rights. Pakistan is also committed to Sustainable Development Goal 8, which calls for providing decent work for all to increase job opportunities, leading to poverty reduction. However, workers in informal sectors like brick kilns often lack access to legal protections and benefits enjoyed by formal-sector workers.

Most brick kilns fail to meet the minimum standards for decent work, including registration with the government, freedom of association for workers, payment of minimum wages, access to social safety nets, and the absence of bonded or child labour.

The brick kiln industry in Pakistan operates largely informally, with many kilns avoiding registration as industries to avoid contributions to social welfare programmes for workers, such as the Employees Old Age Benefits Institution (EOBI) and the Workers Welfare Fund (WWF).

The decent work parameters for brick kiln workers require providing the workers with a safe workplace with adequate wages and remunerations, along with pension, social security, and welfare benefits. Currently, most brick kiln owners do not pay their contribution to these institutions, so their workers are deprived of these facilities. Child labour in Pakistan’s brick kiln industry is a prevalent issue. Their working conditions are hazardous, with exposure to extreme heat, dust, and toxic fumes. This exploitation not only deprives them of their childhood but also risks their health and wellbeing.

To address these issues, the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI) has developed a framework – the socially and environmentally compliant brick kiln framework (SECBKF). It aims to address labour rights while safeguarding brick owners’ businesses and ensuring environmentally compliant operations. It suggests certifying brick kilns as socially and environmentally compliant, aligning with the ILO’s concept of decent work. This concept emphasizes fair employment, social protection, workers’ rights, and social dialogue.

The framework outlines key actions for brick kiln owners, including documenting employment, ensuring minimum wage compliance, and supporting workers in obtaining necessary documents like computerized national identity cards (CNIC). It also stresses zero tolerance for children and bonded labour, promoting equal opportunities for all workers and facilitating their access to social protection services.

Additionally, the framework advocates for constructive labour-employer relationships through social dialogue, encouraging productivity, and protecting workers’ legal rights. It provides voluntary and incentive-based models for compliance with contributions to the EOBI and the Workers Welfare Fund, facilitated by rising profits from cleaner technologies.

Under the proposed incentive model, both government and private-sector buyers are encouraged to pay slightly higher prices for bricks sourced from compliant kilns. This additional cost covers contributions for social protection, with government procurement regulations possibly amended to prioritize compliant kilns. Tax rebates and one-time payments further incentivize compliance, benefiting both workers and owners.

Private-sector buyers, especially those procuring bricks in bulk, can incentivize compliance by guaranteeing orders for compliant kilns and recommending them for industry chamber membership. These measures promote responsibility and sustainability, benefiting workers, owners, and society.

The implementation of the framework can help Pakistan comply with the global commitments it has made through the signing and ratification of the ILO Conventions, the EU’s GSP plus framework, the SDGs and NDCs, wherein the country has committed to improving the lot of its workers, especially those in the informal sector such as brick kilns.

The writer is project assistant, Sustainability and Resilience Development Program – SDPI. The article reflects the writer’s own views. He can be reached at: