In India, brick-making is typically a manual process, using the Bull’s trench kiln (BTK), based on a design developed by British engineer W. Bull in the late 19th century. Workers put in an average of 12 hours a day. These kilns are known to operate in a largely unregulated manner, remaining outside the purview of workplace laws, with workers bound to contractors through advance payments.
A 2009 report by the United Nations Development Programme pegged the number of brick kilns in India at 50,000, employing an average of 100 workers each.
Photograph by Soham Gupta
Maruf Molla, the owner of PGM Kiln in West Bengal’s North 24 Parganas—where a portion of this photo essay was shot—says that on an average a worker produces and carries about 12,000 bricks each week. They’re paid Rs80 for every 1,000 bricks. The workers create moulds, transport these to the baking centre and then carry the bricks out to be transported to construction sites.
Brick-kiln workers are a vulnerable lot. They tend to be migrant workers drawn from some of the most disadvantaged parts of India: Jharkhand, Bihar and West Bengal. Various non-governmental organizations and state governments have attempted to address their plight. In August 2009, for instance, the Gujarat Rural Workers Welfare Board initiated schemes to provide social security cover for such workers, including group insurance schemes.
The photo series, shot in two brick kilns in North 24 Parganas, around 48km from Kolkata, is an attempt to capture a day’s work at the kiln. There were children as young as 7 working; men as old as 70; and women who cooked and fed their children between producing their set numbers of red bricks.
Soham Gupta is a Kolkata-based documentary photographer. This is part of an ongoing series by him on workers in the unorganized sectors, including garage workers and porters.