I met Lata didi. No, I am not talking about the legendary Bollywood singer Lata Mangeshkar but the power-centre of the brick kiln labour market of Nuapada in Western Odisha.
Brick kilns sector is particularly infamous for bad work conditions and exploitation of its workers – long work hours, lower wages, unhygienic and unskilled job with little scope for growth. Incidents of payment related disputes, accidents, missing workers and workers held in bondage is so high that practically every worker has a story of injustice to tell. Falling between the cracks of Factories Act and Building and Other Construction Workers Act, there isn’t a specific law governing and monitoring the sector. Neither do social security and labour welfare programs mentioned under these Acts reach the workers.
Brick kilns mostly employ seasonal migrant workers, whether they are the intra-state migrants moving within Maharashtra to work in the brick kilns of Panvel and Aurangabad; tribal migrants from Rajasthan to Gujarat; Western Odisha migrants to Ranga Reddy district and Hyderabad in AP; or migrants from Chattisgarh to Uttar Pradesh. It is one of the highly vulnerable, distress migration streams where women and children migrate along to work with the men. Set up in remote areas the brick kilns are distant from the basic and civic services related to education, health, legal protection and finance.
Ahh… here I go talking about migration and labour again, surely a discourse worth a lot of discussion. But I was here to tell you about Lata didi. I met her late in the evening, after a village meeting in Nuapada, a newly formed district on the border of Odisha and Chattisgarh. The head of the local organization I was visiting insisted I met her. It was dark and I was anxious, not knowing what this meeting would turn out to be. Well, I had to be confident and so I called out, “Namaskar Lata didi.”
“Namaskar, aayiye” she answered, her tone quizzical yet confident. She sat alone on a charpoy, outside her house across the road. I moved closer to get a better look of her. I saw the gold, lot of gold and then the woman who was wearing it. Behind her stood a well built man, a bodyguard I thought. She held a small white Pomeranian dog. I was instantly reminded of the Thakurain Karamkali of the movie Malamaal Weekly – loaded with jewelry and spoilt with power.
Lata didi is the president of the union of brick-kiln contractors. A 40 member strong union that supplies about 10000 brick kiln workers every year to UP, Haryana and Punjab. The workers migrating from Nuapada in Odisha and border area of Chattisgarh, take an advance payment from the contractors for a season to work at a brick kiln. Sometimes they take money from multiple contractors and don’t show up at work. Lata didi’s basic work is to recover such advance payment from the worker. She takes a percentage of this recovery as her fees. Additionally, the contractors pay her Rs 10 for every worker they hire. She has 6 ‘boys’ for the job, like the one who stood by her. How they extract the money from the brick kiln worker is left to ones imagination. She proudly claimed that her boys did not fear anyone, even police.
She made her bodyguard get us tea and I asked if she was happy in her work. “Of course”, she said immediately, “Everyday I come out and sit on the charpoy. People come to me, touch my feet and ask for help. They praise me where ever I go. I get work for 10,000 workers. What more do I want?” She held power, though I am not sure if she ever exercised it for the benefit of the workers, when contractors mistreated them. The local organization, that was hosting me, runs a program delivering services to migrant workers. They register migrants and issue them identity cards as a proof document at the destination. Lata didi first called the organization head regarding this service. The contractors found the service threatening and had approached her. She doesn’t encourage the service but didn’t make any attempts to stop it either. Lata didi is definitely a strong stakeholder in the context of brick kiln workers but how much would she favor workers? How do we engage her for better penetration of our services? I am still wondering…
Often as we talk of labour issues in general, and migration in particular, we identify lack of organization among workers as a reason for lower bargaining power. Many civil society efforts have been towards collectivizing and unionizing workers for empowering them. The task hasn’t been easy and here I was witnessing a union of labour contractors which already had an upper hand over workers and has mustered more power through unionization and Lata didi. The workers on the other hand continue to be fragmented and powerless. What the local organization and I are struggling to figure out is a way to use these stakeholders to arrive at an equitable relationship between the employer/ contractor and the migrant workers.
– Zaineb Ali, Aajeevika Bureau