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    Half of bonded labourers at Afghan kilns are children: Study

    KABUL (PAN): A survey on bonded labour in Afghan brick kiln found more than half of the workers were children, with a majority of them under the age of 14.

    Commissioned by the International Labour Organization (ILO) and conducted by Samuel Hall Consulting, the survey “Buried in Bricks: Rapid Assessment of Bonded Labour in Afghan Brick Kilns” aims at providing an accurate picture of bonded and child labour in brick kilns in two provinces of Afghanistan, Nangarhar and Kabul.

    The study found that 56 percent of brick makers in the Afghan kilns were children under the age of 18 (58 percent boys and 42 percent girls), and 47 percent were 14 or younger (33 percent boys and 14 percent girls), the ILO said in the report.

    Most of children began working between seven and eight years old, and by the age of nine almost 80 percent of children are working. Only 15 percent of the children attended school, the main reason for not doing so being the need to help their families. Consequently, they do not acquire the skills necessary to break out of bonded labour, and, with the intergenerational transference of debt, children have no choice but to follow in the footsteps of their parents.

    Of the adult workers, 98 percent were men, the survey noticed. Unlike the brick kiln industry in other countries, like Nepal and India, in Afghanistan the industry is male dominated and “the exclusion of women from the work force places a greater dependence on child labour,” the report says.

    Only young girls work alongside their brothers and fathers and as soon as they reach puberty they are kept in the home. “This does not mean that their work ceases; it simply shifts to family work, which is unpaid and often undercounted in child labour statistics.”

    The study found brick kilns relied almost entirely on debt bondage and workers and their families tied to a kiln by the need to pay off loans taken for basic necessities, medical expenses, weddings and funerals, rather than one-time expenses such as those related to entrepreneurship.

    The report found basic subsistence needs forced families to take repeated loans, often paying for a winter’s food with a loan they must spend an entire season paying back. Of the families surveyed, 64 percent had worked in the kilns for 11 years or more and 35 percent for more than 20 years. Nearly all (98 percent) households fell vulnerable to debt bondage while living in Pakistan as refugees or migrants.

    Both adult and child labourers worked more than 70 hours a week, in very poor conditions. Average daily wages are between 297 and 407 Afghanis (US$6.23-8.54) for an adult and 170-278 Afghanis (US$3.57-5.82) for a child.

    Bonded labour arrangements keep wages low. However, the report said that given the current conditions in the brick industry, high levels of competition and the notoriously low profit margins, kiln owners could not increase wages or improve conditions without effectively pricing themselves out of the market.

    “While a worst form of child labour, we need to resist the temptation to immediately ban this form of child labour,” said Hervé Berger, ILO Representative in Afghanistan. “Doing so would worsen the lives of those concerned and drive the practice underground. The issue of bonded and child labour is at its core an economic problem that requires economic solutions. We need to work together with the government to find holistic responses to this phenomena.”

    The report also warned that the anticipated contraction in the Afghan construction sector, as donor spending is reduced, will force many brick kiln owners to shut down or reduce wages, making survival even harder for bonded labourers.

    The report described work in brick kilns as one of the most prevalent, yet least known, forms of hazardous labour in Afghanistan – for both children and adults – and one of the worst forms of labour for children in particular”.

    The survey was carried out between August and October 2011. Information was gathered (through interviews and surveys) from around 2,000 people involved in the brick industry including adult and child workers, other household members, brick kiln owners, recruiters, community leaders and other stakeholders.

    pr/ma