Bonded to Forced Labour: Behind Brick Making

Mujeebu’s Fellowship is made possible by the Rural India Supporting Trust.

Brick making is one of the old industries as the technique is as old as that of the Indus valley civilisation. Though the design and shape have undergone several changes, the production technology remains more or less same. There are approximately 50,000 brick kilns all over India employing on an average 100 workers[i]. No precise information is available though.

As far as India is concerned, the industry mostly depends on the rural migrant labour[ii]. Jharkhand is one of those states which are huge sources of migrant laborers to Brick kilns in West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh. Predominantly, bondage system prevails in the brick kiln industry. The term, bondage system refers to the workers who provide services under conditions of bondage arising from economic considerations, notably through a loan or advance. It is one of the extreme forms of labor exploitation in the country. Recent pieces of evidence also suggest that bonded labour or debt bondage is a widespread form of forced labour, particularly in South Asia and above all in India[iii].

While old form of agrestic bondage are disappearing, new forms are appearing, which often qualify as ‘neo-bondage’[iv]. In different to the older form of bondage, which was entrenched into an extensive set of obligations and rights; and was intergenerational, neo-bondage is time bonded and more economical. In India, neo-bondage is present in different forms such as brick kilns, quarries, mines, construction sites. It can also be seen in the sectors of agro-business industries like sugar cane; and different other big and small industries. Carpet weaving, fish processing, bidi making, and salt plains are some among them.

Photo: Srijan Foundation (Rahul Lal).

The debt is the cause of the bondage, and the inference is that the worker including their dependents or heirs is bonded to a particular creditor for a specified or unspecified period. Bonded labour system, from the perspective of the industry, is a labour management strategy to deal with the technological changes and the market fluctuations[v].

Bonded system appears as the result of a combination of factors: chronic unemployment, lack of social capital, and specific modes of extraction of surplus labor[vi].  In such a situation when poor negotiate their agency in the labor market, they have no choice but to arbitrate between the local village economy which is weak and migration as potentially better though involves risk factors.  The improved infrastructure and communication, which has also been accompanied by relatively ease transportation and cheap communication have also have impacted in the migration pattern. This has made significant changes in the information asymmetry and speed at which migrants can commute between the origin and the destinations.

From the perspective of the labor, the decline of the agriculture employment created masses of poor people both vulnerable and thus seeking livelihood to survive. From the capital perspective, the bondage can be seen as deliberative strategy to accumulate and discipline the seasonal labor[vii]. When the market booms or declines, for industries, bonding laborers with debt can be a way to cope with the ‘labour problem.’ i.e., attracting and disciplining workers. This is clear with the cases of brick kilns: considering that there is no consistent growth in a dynamic construction sector, migration and debt are increasingly strategically used by brick kiln employers to deal with the labour capital.

The recent development in India has already widened the gap between agriculture and non-agriculture and between rural and urban, and it has already been concentrated in some areas of the country. This spatial difference in the development and economic opportunities also have a massive role in the pattern of migration. However, the spatial variation can also act as an attendant of development[viii]. When regional fertility and death differential declines, migration becomes the significant component influencing the population redistribution. However, to what extent migration played this role in India’s situation is still a question, which I’m hoping to shed more light during my research with Srijan Foundation.


[ii] Ateeq, N., & John, J. (2003). Migrant Labour in the Brick Kilns of Punjab. Migrant Labour and Human Rights in India, New Delhi: National Human Rights Commission, India.

[iii] ILO (2009) The Cost of Coercion. Global Report Under the Follow-Up to the ILO Declaration of Fundamental Principles and Rights at Wok Geneva: ILO.

[iv] Breman, J. (2010). Neo-bondage: a fieldwork-based account. International Labor and Working-Class History78 (1), 48-62

[v] Guérin, I., Michiels, S., Ponnarasu, S., & Venkatasubramanian, G. (2012). Ambiguities and paradoxes of the decent work deficit: Bonded migrants in Tamil Nadu. Global labour journal3(1).

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] McGranahan, D. A. (1980). The spatial structure of income distribution in rural regions. American Sociological Review, 313-324.

As a keen student of politics, law and human rights, Mujeebu is fascinated by the complex apparatus of law and governance in India. His graduation in Masters in Development with specialization in law and governance from Azim Premji University Bangalore has a profound impact on his passion. He has also completed a Master’s thesis from Indian Institute of Technology Gandhinagar. To supplement his theoretical understanding, he has interned with various non-governmental organizations and civil society movements in India. Throughout these different internships and field engagements, he was looking at different issues from the perspective of law and human rights. Very recently he was selected for a short-term research exchange program between IIT Gandhinagar and the ISCTE-Institute University of Lisbon, Portugal. Throughout this program at ISCTE-IUL, he was looking at the transit migration and human rights issues among the South Asian migrants in Lisbon. From early on, he was also part of human rights clinic at Azim Premji University where he worked for the human rights of street vendors. He has also worked along with NIMHANS, Bangalore, for the human rights of the transgender community in the city. Furthermore, his rigorous research related field engagements in the remote areas of the Kashmir Valley, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Kerala prove his pleasure of working in diverse conditions.

Mujeebu's Fellowship is made possible by the Rural India Supporting Trust.

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