Afghan Brick Workers

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A recent article by the New York Times on indentured servitude in the brick-making industry in Afghanistan highlights the crushing cycle of poverty many families are caught in. For kiln workers with limited skills, the only way to take out a loan is to use their manual labor and that of future generations as collateral. This system unfortunately traps the workers when they are forced to borrow from their employers, who do not pay them enough to settle their debts.

Afghan children who do not attend school can end up working 12 hours a day

For Zar Mohammad the situation is particularly bleak. After taking out a loan to pay for his marriage, he “realized that his weekly earnings in the kiln left little or no money to pay down the principal. As his family grew, he found himself having to borrow more money” and he saw his debt increase each year.

According to the article, Mohammad and his four sons are paid $10 for a day’s labor—roughly 2,500 bricks.  The kiln owners can sell this amount of bricks for up to $160. The owners say they are helping the families of kiln workers, noting that many were stranded as refugees in Pakistan and that employees are usually provided with “houses, electricity, beds, blankets, water and cash for workers’ family expenses” in addition to further loans for emergencies. For the workers, however, this situation perpetuates their problems as they live lives of great poverty and hardship but still have enough to lose if they choose to stand up to their employers.

The predicament faced by these workers is symptomatic of larger problems related to economic development and poverty. While Mohammad and his children may have to endure terrible circumstances, the job does provide a much needed income. The District Governor of Surkhrod, when interviewed for this article, said, “I know this is not good for kids, but we have to build our buildings [and] our country”. Sarah Crowe, UNICEF’s regional communication director for South Asia offers a similar gloomy assessment of the costs and benefits of child labor in the brick making industry, pointing out that it offers supplemental income for the family.

Unfortunately, while education offers one of the few opportunities to break the chains of poverty for families and communities, the decision to invest in the long-term benefits of education over short-term survival needs is a hard and life-changing one.  Thus, without support and economic assistance and the opportunity to learn, Zar Mohammad’s 8-year-old son Neyaz will have to continue beginning his twelve-hour workday before dawn as he makes the bricks that are rebuilding Afghanistan. While the world may be tough on him, Neyaz continues to dream big.  He says, “I want to go to school and to become a doctor to serve my people and my country.”

-Faris Islam

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