First published by The Kathmandu Post and Asia News Network


Two weeks ago the Animal Nepal rescued a blind working horse and her foal from a brick kiln in Harasiddi, Lalitpur. They were skin and bones. We named them Shakti and Mukti. The rescue again reminds us of the importance of advocating against brick factories that abuse people, animals and the environment. On World Animal Day today, we invite the public to join a consumer campaign to ban ‘blood bricks’.

Brick kilns dot the Kathmandu Valley like solitary oaks, often on fire, belching black smoke as they have done for decades. But on closer inspection one can see an unsettling scene as serious as the environmental catastrophe these factories pose. A picture of startling torture and abuse emerges.

We knew already that traditional kilns are the number one polluters of the Kathmandu Valley with regards to sulphur dioxide emissions. They are also the second highest polluter when it comes to heavy metals and carbon emissions (second only to vehicle exhaust). We also learned that brick factories abuse available resources by removing fertile soil and extracting precious ground and surface water. But there is more to brick kilns than this.

Bricks factories generally operate away from the public eye. No labour inspector ever visits the kilns to monitor the thousands of migrant labourers, and no government department monitors the over one thousand horses, mules and donkeys that work here. Brick kilns form isolated villages where human and animal labourers toil to produce the bricks needed to build our comfortable, earthquake-proof houses.

The work in brick kilns is seasonal and attracts the poorest of the poor. Although the moulding of bricks only starts in November, the contracting of labourers, both human and animals, starts as early as August. Naikis, or middle men, sign deals with kiln owners on the number of labourers to be provided. They use loans to lure the most desperate to Kathmandu: flood victims from Sarlahi, Tharus from Dang, Dalits from Kavre and Makwanpur, landless from Rukum and Rolpa. Those who cannot afford to go to India or abroad end up working in Kathmandu’s brick factories. Once they have taken a loan from a naiki they are – in a way – bonded; their salaries, minus the loans, will only be paid when the season ends.

A study by Chhimeki, an NGO working in urban health and nutrition, revealed that almost all workers taking up a seasonal job in a kiln live below the poverty line and suffer from a food deficit. Apart from the fire masters, who are young men from Bihar, India, the Nepali workers come with their families. Women and children support the men in moulding and drying the bricks.

The Concern for Children and Environment Nepal estimates that some 60,000 children work in brick kilns across the country. The kids work 8 to 12 hours per day days as they are paid on a piece-rate basis. Due to the long hours and the heavily polluted environment the children are vulnerable to disease. 85% children face at least one illness per season.

Some 85% children staying with their parents in brick factories drop out of school. Their living and working conditions easily qualify for a worst form of child labour. Almost all brick kiln child workers live inside the factory premises. Their make-shift shelter is made of unfired bricks and corrugated sheets. Since virtually none of the kilns use a filtration system, the children suffer from respiratory problems caused by dust particles and black smoke produced by the kilns. Few working children have access to clean drinking water. The available water is supposed to be used solely for brick molding and production. Sanitation facilities are almost absent, further encouraging disease.

The conditions of the working donkeys of the Kathmandu Valley are as dark as those of the children who work there. Horses, mules and donkeys, brought in all the way from Nepalgunj, increasingly become the backbone of brick production, hauling bricks to and from the kiln. There are no laws that govern their treatment, and no government department represents their needs.

The equines fail to receive basic case such as nutritious food, water, rest, shelter, and are continuously overloaded and overworked. Injuries go untreated; severely ill donkeys are left to die. The animals are beaten relentlessly by their handlers, mostly children, some as young as six years old.

The Animal Nepal introduced a Working Donkey Outreach Programme in Lalitpur district in 2008. We conduct medical camps, provide first aid boxes and improved harnesses, and educate factory and equine owners. We run a sanctuary for handicapped and sick equines. By now, the conditions of the 500 or so working equines in Lalitpur have improved but we continue to come across desperate cases such as Shakti and Mukti. In the past two years we witnessed the death of countless donkeys for whom help came too late; factory and equine owners tend to regard these deaths as a calculated loss.

Something must and can be done to end the vicious circle of abuse. Every individual can make a significant difference by using his or her consumer power. In order to help make buyers make the rights choices, a network of NGOs active in environmental protection, children’s rights and animal welfare have joined hands to promote a responsible brick-making industry. They are introducing a certification system that will provide brick factories with a red, orange or green label. Brick kilns with no regard for labour laws, environment or animal welfare get a red label; the ones with improved conditions are allocated an orange one while those with good conditions receive a green label.

Although the preparations for the certification are still on the way, we already urge every citizen to buy ‘clean and green bricks’ from today. Among the responsible factories are the Vertical Shaft Brick Kilns (VSBK). These factories take care of the environment as well as the people. Workers here work all year round and the factories have child-care centres, proper housing, clean drinking water, toilets and access to health care and education. VSBK kilns do not employ animals.

Consumer power increasingly decides what is being produced and in what manner. Next time you order a stack of bricks make sure they have not been produced with the sweat and blood of children and donkeys. For the sake of Shakti and Mukti and thousands of working children please opt for clean and green bricks.

Asia News Network