We spoke to journalist Shreya Raman, who reported on the plight of brick kiln workers in India, with the support of the IWMF Howard G. Buffett Fund for Women Journalists. According to Raman, last year, India witnessed 280 heatwaves across 16 states – the highest number the country has seen in 12 years.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
IWMF: What are the long-term consequences of heat on laborers in the brick industry?
Shreya Raman: Firstly, it impacts the health of the workers as exposure to extreme heat is known to accelerate respiratory, cardiovascular and other chronic illnesses, and in some cases it also leads to death. Secondly, given that most workers are paid based on the number of bricks they make, extreme heat also leads to loss of productivity and reduced earnings. This increases debt burden for the workers and pushes them to more exploitation.
What are people doing to resist the exploitative conditions of this work?
One of the most important things people are doing is that they are unionising but it is limited to a few kilns in the areas I visited. The union that was established in 2012 has been able to negotiate better pay for the workers but has not been able to improve working conditions and change structures. One of the main problems is that the kiln workers are migrant labourers who don’t go to the same kiln every year. They may go to different districts or states within the country or may also skip a few years because of an improved financial situation. This acts as a barrier for a strong and stable union. A few NGOs are also working with the brick kiln owners to provide basic education and healthcare facilities in the kilns but again, they are limited to a small proportion of the kilns. To handle the extreme heat, workers are also working mostly in the night but this has impacted their sleep patterns and also the lack of ventilation in the huts make it difficult for them to rest in the mornings or afternoons.
What was your experience reporting this story, as someone also affected by these extreme temperatures?
This was one of the most challenging stories for me to report. I could not spend longer than three hours a day on the field. On the first day of my reporting trip, the heat was so intense that my phone stopped working. The screen had a small thermometer symbol with the message, “iPhone needs to cool down before you can use it”. But each brick kiln worker that I interviewed that day said, “Abhi to mausam suhana hai (The weather is good now). It will get worse”. That is when I realised that my primary challenge would be to explain what long hours of strenuous work in this extreme heat means, especially to those who spend their days in air-conditioned chambers.
Each reporting day was filled with similar challenges. On three of the reporting days, I had to travel on a union leader’s motorbike to be able to access the kilns and I felt that the heat drained all the energy in me. To ensure I didn’t get a heatstroke, I always carried an ample amount of water and ORS [oral rehydration salt] packets.
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