WB: Over 12 Lakh Brick Kiln Workers Left in Lurch as Owners Go on Strike
“What will we eat, how will we sustain ourselves in this inflation? The strike call by brick kiln owners will be the greatest turmoil of our lives,” said Nepal Mondal (62), a brick kiln worker from Pujali of South 24 Parganas district.
Talking with NewsClick, Mondal said that he gets Rs 270 per day working as a chatai mistri (scrap mason) at a large brick field in Pujali.
“In our sector every two years there is a wage agreement, but this year's agreement is yet to be finalised. In any case, the workers get less than the prescribed minimum wage in the state after working for 12 hours in a day,” he said.
“There has been talks of coal shortage in the brick kilns as the owners have not bought any coal from Coal India so far. Furthermore, at a time when the season is advancing this hartal call is robbing us of our livelihood,” he added.
Mondal is referring to the All India Brick Kiln Owners’ Association’s call for a country wide strike against the doubling of goods and services tax (GST) imposed on the sector, with the rate being hiked to 600%, up from 240% on finished products and an additional 12% GST on labour wages by the GST board. The Association has asserted that coal prices have increased by 350% and allege that keeping brick kilns active in such situations tantamounts to losses.
There are nearly 10,000 brick kilns in the state, out of which 7,000 are registered and the rest are unregistered. Each kiln employs around 100 labourers during peak time. Nearly 12 to 15 lakh workers and service sector employees, including loaders, lorry drivers and allied workers, apart from the direct brick kiln workers, are related with the industry in the state.
It can be recalled that brick manufacturing is a seasonal manufacturing process which goes on from September to May, halting in the monsoon months. During the time when kilns are closed, the workers catch fish and hire themselves out for agricultural field work.
Most of the workers of this industry come from West Bengal itself nowadays, unlike earlier when migratory workers from Jharkhand and Bihar used to work the kilns.
Nepal Mondal has got four mouths to feed, including his two sons and his wife. “The decision of brick kiln owners (to go on strike) just before the festival season has brought darkness in our home,” he lamented.
“We sympathise with brick kiln owners about their demands, but they called the strike in haste, before consulting the State government through its appropriate channels for allotment of coal under the preferential category,” Moloy Sarkar of the Centre of Trade Unions (CITU)-affiliated West Bengal Tali and Bhata Shramik Karmachari Federation, the largest workers body in this industry, said.
Recently the federation wrote a letter to the Bengal Brick Field Owners’ Association, where the pathetic condition of the workers in this industry was highlighted and an appeal was made to the owners not to go into strike. They also mentioned that in the brick kiln industry the workers do not get any statutory benefits like provident funds, ESI, gratuity and other benefits like leaves.
In a brick kiln there are varied types of workers like pathera or moulder who makes the bricks, reja bakidar, who carries the bricks to the moulding furnace, bojhai mistri or loader, fire mistri or fireman, scrap mason, night guards, munshis or accountants, those who give tickets to the finished products for carriage, and lorry workers.
A munshi and fireman typically gets about Rs 10,000 to 12,000 while other categories are paid in the range of Rs 9,000-9,500 as wages. The ticketeers get about Rs 4,000-4,500. On average, a brick kiln worker who is of permanent nature gets a bonus at 8.33%, while other workers get a festive bonus at a designated amount before the Durga puja if the brick field runs properly. This year with the brick fields closed there might be no festive bonus.
Talking with Shahnawaj Kazi of the Brick Kiln Workers’ Union, we came across the exploitation being faced by the workers in the industry. “Work continues for a minimum of 12 hours and after working from dawn to dusk the workers are not paid properly and get less than the minimum wages for a skilled and unskilled labourer mandated in the state. PF and gratuity are a far cry in the sector and despite writing to the owners various times about this, no positive response has come,” Kazi rued.
CITU leader Gargi Chatterjee looks after the Brick Kiln Workers’ Union in the North 24 Parganas district where many brick kilns are located on the banks of the river Icchamati. There, a strong workers movement is in the making, but the sudden hartal call by the owners has created widespread discontent among workers of the district.
“At all the affected districts of the state, the union is busy organising deputation to the sub-divisional and block development offices so that the cease work order by the owners are withdrawn urgently. The strike has also resulted in the common man paying more for house construction and has started an inflationary trend in the industry, and if this hartal continues, there will be severe brick shortage across the state which will severely hit the construction sector,” Chatterjee informed NewsClick.
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