Thought you had poise under intense pressure plus the strength to carry a heavy burden? Think again. In Bangladesh, people routinely stack mountainous piles of bricks onto their heads when loading and unloading the boats and Bedford trucks used to transport clay-fired bricks from the kilns where they are made to the construction sites where they are used. These feats of endurance and equilibrium look near inconceivable to blinkered Western eyes, but for the brick carriers it’s all in a day’s work. Just watch this:
Yes way. That stack of some 20 bricks is almost as tall as the man carrying it, yet he still has room to flip a few more on top and walk the plank onto dry land. After this initial effort, workers often have to carry their precarious piles some distance, and when on site climb several flights of stairs to the rooftops where the bricks will be laid. Without wheelbarrows, single-minded stability is all that stands between a slip and tens of kilos of bricks falling – and perhaps even a snapped neck.
A man carrying bricks on his head in Bangladesh
Photo: Bangladesh Picture Gallery
Yet despite the apparent danger of bricks being stacked so, the sight is commonplace in Bangladesh, where people use their heads for carrying things a lot. Teams of construction workers, male and female, shift the piles of bricks or buckets of sand and concrete aided only by a flat hat to help keep the load balanced. Bricks are probably the main building material in Bangladesh, as most of the country lies on an floodplain with soil ideal for making bricks – if not so ideal for the workers.
Dotted around the edge of cities like Dhaka, there are hundreds of kilns – chimneys reaching for the sky – where the clay bricks dug out of the ground by hand are blasted to a rosy red under the fierce heat of the furnaces. Yet conditions in the brick making yards are far from rosy. Here, as on the construction sites, labourers must sweat and slog through the intense heat of the sun, working long hours for scant reward. Although forbidden, and not always visible to the West, child labour is rife.
For each 1,000 bricks these children at a brick factory in Fatullah carry, they earn the equivalent of USD 0.9. At another brick field on the outskirts of Dhaka, about 45 workers are employed to carry out backbreaking work, toiling 12 hours a day for a daily wage of 120 taka (USD 1.70) for men, and 100 taka (USD 1.40) for women. So while we might marvel at the amazing posture, deft steps and fluid movements of the brick carriers, let’s not forget the oppressive levels of exploitation at work here.
Brickfield where bricks are made in Aminbazar, Dhaka
Photo: Catch the dream
Photographer Mohammad Moniruzzaman wrote these words alongside the image above:
“This is our battlefield.
You crush the bones of the enemies… whereas we crush the hard rock into pieces.
You spill blood, creating a bloodbath in your battlefield… whereas we spill drops of sweats making a river…
You destroy, we build.
…And you think you are the heroes.”
Woman brick carrier in Dhaka
Most of the bricks are used to erect buildings and build roads, but those that are damaged, broken in transit or left lying around are collected together ready for girls, boys, men and women of all ages, to huddle together hammering the bricks into smaller chunks or a consistency similar to coarse sand. These people spend all day holding the bricks in their hands and feet crouched atop the piles of broken bricks, which gradually grow as the brick breakers tire.
Brick breakers and carriers in Dhaka
The bits of brick are used as filler for concrete or mixed with sand to make a base for roads. If an old building is demolished its bricks are recycled too. Here again people squat all day cleaning off the cement from the used bricks and smashing them into smaller pieces. The fact that so little is wasted reveals an environmental point in all of this, but the underlying motive comes down to the demands of capitalism: it’s cheaper to employ these people to work on the bricks than it is to buy new ones.
Supple postures and seemingly superhuman feats of balance are all well and good, but perhaps what these people need more is the means to stand in rigid defiance.