Nearly one million people work for 12-14 hours a day, six days a week, lacking basic human rights, where many of them face inhuman torture
Even in the year 2021 there exists slavery in the brick kilns of Bangladesh.
“We had been made to work without any pay for a long time. On top of that, the manager had been confining us in shackles and torturing us as well. Then we called ‘999’ to rescue us," said Abul Kalam, who was rescued from a brickfield in Bandarban.
“As we were brought from Noakhali through a broker, the owners of the kiln treated us like slaves,” said the 32-year-old.
In December last year, Kalam was rescued from the FBM Brickfield in Bandarban with three others while law enforcers rescued four, including children, from the Niaz Brick Kiln in Pirojpur in January.
Like Kalam, an estimated one million labourers work for 12-14 hours a day, six days a week in brick making kilns, lacking basic rights and access to social security. Many of them are also tortured and sexually harassed.
Tortured helpless workers cannot escape even if they want to. They are kept in confinement and forced to work with shackles on their legs.
Himon Kumar Saha, deputy inspector general for Barisal zone, said: “Most of these workers are brought from different places and sold to the kiln owners by brokers. These workers are forced to work until the money spent by the employers is adjusted.
“In some cases, they are also chained. Inhuman torture is carried out if they show reluctance to work. However, they don't tell us these when we visit the brick kilns.”
He added that: “Brick kiln workers usually live at the factories, in cramped conditions, sharing basic amenities such as water supplies and toilet facility.”
According to the Department of Environment, there are a total of 8,033 brick kilns in Bangladesh. However, it is assumed that the actual number surpasses 15,000.
Cycle of debt
Many workers are also trapped into a perpetual cycle of debt. Md Rubel, a 25 years old young man, is a bonded labourer who was deployed at Niaz Brick kiln at Indurkani in Pirojpur after his father passed away due to sickness without repaying his loan.
Like Rubel’s father, many workers take loans from the kiln managers. Those who are unable to repay have no choice but to work as slaves.
“My father got a pretty big loan during my sister’s marriage ceremony, but could not repay it as his income was too little. Adding interest, the payable amount became hefty,” Rubel said.
This January, law enforcement agencies rescued four chained workers including two children from Niaz Brick kiln at Indurkani in Pirojpur. Similarly, police rescued four workers from being tortured in confinement at FBM Brickfield in Bandarban Sadar upazila on December last.
These are not even isolated incidents, according to the Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments (DIFE), law enforcement agencies have rescued 56 and 52 workers from being tortured or shackled in captivity in 2019 and 2018 respectively.
Jan 10, 2021
Four chained workers including two children have been rescued from Niaz Brick kiln at Indurkani in Pirojpur. Police have arrested five people on charges of being involved in the incident.
Dec 29, 2020
Police rescued four workers from being tortured in confinement at FBM Brickfield in Bandarban Sadar upazila as well as arrested seven people including owners of the kiln.
Jan 20, 2020
Police have rescued Salauddin Gazi, 25, who was chained for 49 days at CMB brick kiln in Narail.
Jan 4, 2019
Police rescued 14 workers, including six teenagers, from Pial brick kiln in Char-Kushli area of Tungipara upazila in Gopalganj. They were rescued after receiving news that the brick kiln workers were being locked up and tortured.
April 4, 2018
10 locked up workers rescued from AKB brick kiln at Pekua upazila in Cox’s Bazar.
As many as 297 cases are pending at labour courts across the country while 106 cases are pending in Dhaka and 60 in Narayanganj. The cases are mostly filed under Section 326 of the Penal Code for voluntarily causing grievous hurt, assault and torture at brick kilns, according to the DIEF.
However, accused owners and officials rarely get punished for torturing the workers as they are influential in the society.
The concerned government department hardly stresses on the importance of preventing slavery in brick kilns.
“It is true that workers at brick kiln face torture, forced to work against will. We can hardly monitor the incidents or take initiative to prevent violation of human rights, as we have a shortage of manpower,” said Md Ejaz Ahmed Jaber, inspector general (acting) of DIEF.
“We have 10% less staffers than required,” he told Dhaka Tribune.
“However, we suspended operation of 60 brick kilns across the country due to violation of labour laws,” he added.
Taqbir Huda, research specialist of Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust (BLAST), said: “There are very few labour courts in the country so it is difficult for the workers to get legal support. For example, workers at Lalmonirhat would not want to attend a hearing in Rajshahi.
“On the other hand, brick kiln workers face chronic diseases but hardly get compensation as they have no appointment letter by the owners,” he added.