More than 168 million children labor around the world, most denied an education and condemned to a cycle of poverty. The sheer number of child laborers underscores the need for reform in the many industries that employ child labor.
Reducing and eliminating child labor requires a focus on decent work for adults. In industries that regularly exploit workers—including not only brick kilns but also garment factories and palm oil plantations—improving wages and reducing daily production quotas make it easier for workers to provide for their families and enroll their children in schools. Trade unions and collective bargaining have helped workers around the world achieve these kinds of reforms.
In many South Asian countries, thousands of children labor in brick kilns under hazardous conditions. Child laborers, who are rarely given proper safety equipment, are particularly vulnerable to serious burns, cuts and other injuries while shaping bricks from wet clay, facing the searing heat from a kiln’s open fire and carrying stacks of finished bricks on their heads.
Entire families sometimes become bonded after borrowing money from someone such as a brick kiln owner. They then work to repay the loan but often are unable to pay off their debt, even over many years, because their wages are so low. The children and adult workers often cannot even leave the kiln and find themselves trapped in a vicious cycle of debt. Children forced to work are unable to attend school, which severely limits their opportunities later in life.
Better Brick Nepal Tackles Roots of Child Labor
In Nepal, where more than 2 million children age 14 and younger are at work, the Global Fairness Initiative (GFI)’s program Better Brick Nepal (BBN) is helping to reduce child labor and improve working conditions in brick kilns. In a recent roundtable presentation at Humanity United in Washington, D.C., BBN leaders, joined by representatives from several international worker rights organizations, explained how their work brings together a variety of stakeholders from throughout the brick industry.
BBN, which gets input from labor unions, and its many partners, are using economic incentives to reduce brick kilns’ reliance on child labor. BBN instructs brick kiln owners on best practices for protecting worker rights and offers technical assistance in exchange. As employers improve safety and cut bonded labor and child labor out of the equation, BBN helps them update their facilities and boost their productivity.
Market-based incentives are also key to the Solidarity Center’s Decent Work Brick Kiln-Framework in Pakistan, where we joined with allies in the country to develop an economic incentive-based model in which brick kiln employers ensure their facilities meet decent work standards.
“Changing the Narrative” of Safety Inspections
BBN’s reach in Nepal has had a “huge expansion,” says GFI’s Nepal Country Director Homraj Acharya, from five brick kilns to 40 in just three years, and with many more kilns on a “wait list.”
Acharya estimates that BBN has reached more than 1,300 children laboring in brick kilns, providing them with the opportunity to attend school and escape “generations of marginalization.”
Acharya believes the devastating earthquake in 2015 played a major role in increasing BBN’s influence. Not only did rebuilding efforts provide incentives for brick kilns to increase their productivity through BBN’s program, he says, but the collective humanitarian experience inspired people to demand reform and embrace socially responsible industry.
As Solidarity Center Senior Program Officer Sonia Mistry writes, development and aid efforts to reconstruct Nepal should “support the rebuilding of Nepali communities by addressing the root causes of the exploitative labor migration cycle.
“This means creating decent jobs at home, and paying workers a living wage under safe conditions to rebuild their villages and their cities. Reconstruction contracts should go to companies that meet a high bar for labor standards—and comply with the International Labor Organization’s core conventions, including the right to form unions.”
“We are changing the narrative,” says Acharya. “Originally brick kilns didn’t want to see [inspectors]. Now they are saying, ‘We are willing to change and contribute to society.’”