The Brick Makers of Andhra Pradesh

A brick maker in Medak, in Andhra Pradesh

It’s hot, smoky, dirty work, and it’s backbreaking to boot. The families who slog away here at this brick kiln spend their days with their hands steeped in clay or lugging heavy loads of bricks, surrounded on all sides by the stacked product of their labor.

A child sets the bricks out to dry.

The hot and grimy brick factory environment is a far cry from the green fields and rural surroundings from which many of the workers originate, in the state of Orissa, on India’s eastern coast.

Women climb stairs carrying heavy brick loads on their heads.

Explaining the background behind this set of pictures, photographer Venkat Prakash recalls how he was traveling from his home in Hyderabad, in the state of Andhra Pradesh, to the town of Medak, which lies about 80 kilometers away. On the way, he saw many brick factories, and was intrigued enough to stop at one such site and take these photographs.

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Child labor is common at the brick works.

Brick making is an ancient profession that has been fundamental to many civilizations. Without the basic unit of construction that is the brick, we would be without the many buildings and monuments that fill, or have filled, our cities both past and present.

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Digging up sand

In India alone, people have been making bricks for thousands of years. One of the earliest known urban civilizations, the Indus Valley Culture of Harappa in northwest India, has left many examples of millennia-old brickwork as well as the kilns that were, in all likelihood, used to fire them.

Filling the brick moulds

The Harappans made their bricks out of clay and by hand – utilizing the manual labor of the poorest classes – and not much seems to have changed. Today, many of the brick workers in Andhra Pradesh (like those shown in these photographs) are migrants from the neighboring state of Orissa.

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A handful of black sand

It is estimated that almost 2 million people leave Orissa looking for work each year, so for the owners of the brick-making factories cheap labor is plentiful. Of course, this is something the more unscrupulous contractors look to exploit.

To keep it from sticking, the clay is covered in sand before being placed in the mold.

The reasons for this huge exodus from Orissa (or Odisha, as it is officially spelled) are largely economic. Despite the state’s wealth of natural resources, as of the year 2000 there were twice the number of people living below the poverty line in Orissa than the average for the rest of India.

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Smoothing the clay in the mould

Orissa is also the Indian state on which climate change is believed to have had the greatest impact, suffering droughts and floods with increasing regularity. These extreme weather events cause the loss not only of life, but also of livelihoods – and this is especially pronounced for those who cultivate the land.

A child watches as his father works.

Unable to rely on their traditional occupations, many people from Orissa are being forced to seek work outside their home state. And as the climate continues to change, the situation is only likely to worsen.

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Coating the brick clay in sand

According to one report, “People from western Orissa, particularly Bolangir, travel to Hyderabad, Chennai and Bengaluru in early summer to work in brick kilns where they are subjected to serious exploitation by the owners and contractors.”

A family at work

“Even women are not spared,” the report continues. “Almost every day there are reports of exploitation and torture of migrants from Orissa’s KBK (Koraput-Bolangir-Kalahandi) region.” In 2000, it was estimated that there were 100,000 brick kilns in India, but the number is likely to be significantly higher today.

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A child sits in the sand.

There are two kinds of kilns noted for their use in India. One is the Bull Trench Kiln and the other the Clamp – a kiln type that has been used for the last 6,000 years. Both, however, involve hard work in difficult conditions, and both rely on fires that burn wood, coal or even other fuels like garbage, producing a thick, polluting smoke. It is estimated that kilns without chimneys in India burn 200 tons of coal per million bricks produced.

A square hole where clay has probably been removed

If they are lucky, the workers are paid around 277 Rupees ($5) for every 1,000 bricks made – an increase from the 180 Rupees ($3.20) they received for the same amount of work until very recently. Yet it’s still a deplorably low rate of pay that encourages the workers to toil long hours and recruit as many family members as possible, including children, into the job.

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A female brick worker from Orissa

According to Indian national newspaper The Hindu, brick workers literally “sell themselves” to the kiln operators. An article relates how “they are brought here in ‘units’ of seven to nine persons including men, women and children”. The report added that around 50,000 Rupees ($ 900) were paid up front to each unit of seven-plus people.

A man carries a load of bricks.

The pattern seems to be that these laborers will come for the dry months, returning to their farms for the monsoon – if, that is, the rainy season arrives that year. “When I asked, ‘How many days will you work here?’ they told me they will work [the] full summer here,” says photographer Prakash of the brick workers he talked to and whose photographs are shown. “Once [the] rain starts they will [go] back [to] their home towns and do their regular jobs,” he adds.

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Removing the bricks from their mould to dry before firing.

Working in the brick kilns is not only strenuous: it is dangerous. Workers are required to haul the bricks from one place to the next balancing the heavy loads on their heads. During a span of five months, it was estimated that one couple carried 300,000 bricks using this method. Not surprisingly, this can result in injuries to the spine, particularly in the event of falls.

The bricks being piled for firing

But carrying bricks is not the only hazard faced by workers in the kilns. Long hours, lack of sanitation and clean drinking water, exposure to smoke, and generally poor working conditions can lead to other serious health problems. What’s more, these are problems that workers are sometimes forced to ignore for the sake of meeting their brick production quotas, and such neglect has even been known to result in fatalities.

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A smiling brick worker

Because they live on the margins of society, the brick workers are limited in terms of opportunities to improve their lot. Quite often illiterate and speaking a different language to that spoken in the region where they find themselves working, they are at the mercy of the kiln owners and managers.

The child of a brick maker

The children of brick workers are also heavily disadvantaged by the difficult occupations of their parents. As noted, many of the youngsters themselves work in the industry, and since migrant worker parents are unable to access many basic services, the kids also miss out on schooling and proper health care services.

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Rolled-up cloth used to cushion the head when carrying bricks

In Orissa, it was reported that a man died in suspicious circumstances after being beaten by the kiln owner and his employees. The family was given 1,000 Rupees ($18) in compensation, and the man’s wife was told to sign a document she couldn’t understand. Having since returned to their village amidst other claims of mistreatment, the family is too afraid to begin complaint proceedings.

Standing on the fired bricks

Although local non-government agencies are trying to assist the migrant brick worker families, until there are proper records about the migrants and a database of their numbers – measures that have, at least, been proposed – it will be an uphill battle. What’s more, the reluctance of the brick making industry bosses to help only serves to make matters worse.

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A young boy worker

Yet, despite all the hardships the workers face, Venkat Prakash was surprised to find those he encountered were apparently content with their lot. “When I approached them to take photographs, they [were] really friendly and allowed me to take photographs,” he told us. “When I saw these people, they [were] really happy with what they are doing.” Prakash says he was surprised by the smiles and cheerful attitude of the brick workers.

A male brick worker

As of 2010, brick kilns in India were reportedly producing around 140 billion bricks a year, making the industry’s output second in volume only to China. Such a rapidly growing country as India needs these bricks to continue building the factories and cities that are fueling its rapidly emerging economy. Considering the importance of the industry, brick workers really deserve to be taken better care of, with more rights and better access to basic services – taking a larger share of the prosperity that hinges on their thankless work.

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A female brick worker

As for Prakash, he told us: “My interest is to take photographs of people and streets in India. Personally, I really felt happy when I took photographs of these bricks factory people. You can feel their comfortableness in their portraits.” We thank Prakash for sharing his pictures with us.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11

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