Denied even drinking water on job, they go into the everyday heat of a cold, hard, and rough industry. Working conditions at brick kilns in this district are inhuman. After the day's toil, barefoot children, men and women covered in dust, both native and migrant, gather for water at some hand pumps on the Tehna road at Chahal village.
Some of the workers, dimpled tins in hand, have walked more than a kilometre to the spot. The water's tinted but it's their only trickle after a day of slavery.
Hell of a house
When the summer sun beats down on their tin-roofed shanties, it's hotter than a furnace inside. The tight, cave-like dwellings they call home accommodate big families with many children.
Storms to brave
"The ceiling is low, and the tin sheet placed over the four walls heats up in summer and gets too cold in winter," said Deepa, who makes bricks on the Panjkgrain Kalan road at Dhilwan Kalan village. "The tin roofs, which are not fixed to the walls, and the walls, which though made of brick, are not joined with mortar blow off in any moderate storm," Sukhmander, another brick maker, "sometimes, flying tin in storm has injured many of our men."
All families in a cluster of brick kilns in the districts have a lone hand pump (well 30 to 40 feet deep) that churns out "colour wala paani (coloured water)". They steal their electricity from farm tube-wells nearby where the supply is two to three hours a day (seven to eight hours in the paddy season). Sometimes, farmers find out and cut the illegal connection.
A school too far
"We have nearly 50 children at the site around Dhilwan Kalan," said Deepa, "but only two go to school. We need maximum hands at work."
Gurpreet Kaur and her brother, Manpreet, attend school at Sibian village. To reach there, they walk 1.5 km through fields, and another 2 km on road.
Most workers spend their lives migrating from one kiln to another. "Work contract is for about a year," said labourer Roop Singh. "We are unsure of finding work the next season. If the employer is good, we sign a contract with him for another year."
Child labour is common in brick industry. "assi sare ei kum karde an, dove bacche, main te meri gharwali (We all work here; my two children, my wife and I)," said Roop Singh. "Kalle da poora ni aunda (if I work alone, it won't be enough to make a living)."
Moulding bricks is tedious, and work begins around 2am. The wages are a paltry Rs 400 to Rs 450 for the task. "At each of the nearly 65 brick kilns in the district that hire at least 10,000 people, working conditions are almost the same," Raju, who claims to be vice-president of the brick-kiln labour union of Punjab. "Child workers remain without education, electricity, medical facilities, earning and now even drinking water."
There is dearth of work in agriculture and other sectors. The brick industry alone gives them at least eight to nine months of employment. "Eh saadi majboori ah (This is our compulsion)," said Raju. "kamm milda nahi (there's no work), sare bandian nu hore kamm nahi mil sakda (everyone cannot find another job)."
Mild issue: Employer
Ravi Sethi, patron of the district Faridkot brick-kiln owners' association, agreed that working conditions in the industry were far from ideal. "We get land (for moulding) for three years maximum. "We try to source electricity for workers from farmers but sometimes it's impractical," Sethi said. "We have all the other facilities. We are working on some of the problems."
"The representatives of the labourers met me on Friday," said deputy commissioner Ravi Bhagat. "I have asked the subdivisional magistrate and labour commissioner to meet the workers and solve their issues."