Brick making in South Asia, mostly located in impoverished rural areas of India and Nepal, continues to employ child labour despite years of local and international campaigning to abolish this practice and the practice being in contravention of International Labour Organization conventions.
To address this problem, Building and Wood Workers' International (BWI) and six local construction-worker unions in four states of India-Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Punjab, and Orissa-are working on a comprehensive, multiyear project meant to improve working and living conditions for brick makers and brick kiln workers and their families, and to offer primary-level schooling to local children. Since 2002 the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), with financial support from CIDA, has worked with trade unions and non-governmental organizations from Holland, Denmark, Finland, and Australia to support Indian construction unions as they reached out to workers in the brick-making sector, and strived to remove children from work and send them to school.
In March 2009, Anna Nitoslawska, coordinator of the CLC program, visited the project to participate in the biannual BWI Child Labour Project Evaluation to see for herself the progress being made. As part of the evaluation, Anna visited one of the first schools funded, located in the Fatehabad district of Uttar Pradesh, just outside the city of Agra. This is a modern, but modest, building with five classrooms. (Before the school was built, the children were taught in the open air.) The school, established in 1999, serves the educational needs of five nearby villages, with a combined population of around 20,000. Currently, 81 boys and 66 girls are enrolled, and there are 5 teachers. Anna interacted with the school children, but she also met teachers, parents, workers, and community members, and visited the site of a nearby brick kiln operation. She was asked to plant a tree at the school, and was invited to come back to visit it as it grew along with the children's schooling and the workers' rights project.
The field visit was followed by a two-day evaluation workshop. This was an occasion to hear from trade union leaders, teachers, organizers, women involved in self-help groups, and community members, all of whom are working hard to make this project a success story. One of the most active participants was Pinki Jain, a former child labourer herself and currently head teacher at the school in Dhanoli, Agra. In the evening, the children performed a short play about HIV/AIDS and how communities can learn to integrate persons living with HIV/AIDS into their midst. The second day focused on mapping out strategic directions for the project for the next two years. As the workshop coincided with International Women's Day, the local union organized a panel on women's rights and released a publication on gender equality. This event was widely reported in the local media.
"The evaluation provided a useful snapshot of the progress made to date," said Anna. "But it also underscored the importance of trade unions and communities working together with a clear purpose and strategy." She said the project has three primary areas of activity: organizing adult workers into unions to negotiate improved working conditions with employers and access to social security, campaigning in rural villages and work sites against the use of child labour, and providing schooling to children removed from child labour.
Project coordinators and participants pointed out these highlights: