Migrant women workers who keep Kerala’s brick kilns running are the unacknowledged queens of multi-tasking. They balance basketloads of mud on their heads, fashion bricks out of them and stack these bricks according to pre-fixed technical norms, even as they cook food for their families, see that the children eat, and keep their dwellings clean.
They also make sure to stand in line to get the collective family wage because their husbands can neither be trusted to remember correctly the number of work hours they have put in, nor be thrifty with the money they get. It’s the women who generally take all the decisions regarding the family’s monthly expenditure. Rice and sambhar (curry made up of lentils) is the standard fare in most homes, with the occasional chicken on a Sunday.
The brick manufacturing season in Kerala normally begins after the rains and stretches between November and April. Those who work in the kilns follow a circular migratory pattern. Middlemen, or ‘brokers’, located in Tamil Nadu and hailing from places like Salem, Theni, Kambham and Usilempetty, simply round up around 20 to 25 families from their respective villages and get them to migrate to the leased paddy fields on the Kerala side of the border, where the kilns are normally located. The employer or employers – leaseholders to brick kiln sites sometimes partner with the landowner – arrange for the required transport.
But before they move out of Tamil Nadu, there is an important transaction to be made. Elaborates M.K. Mohanan, who has been a partner in a brick manufacturing unit in Ernakulam for the last 15 years, “The bus will start only after I have paid Rs 30,000 per family to the broker.” The Rs 30,000 is paid as a surety amount to each family – the wages and weekly expenses for six months are extra. So the total cost for getting 20 families from Tamil Nadu to the worksite is Rs 5 lakhs approx, including transportation costs, also borne by the employer.
Potentially, there is an annual turnover of Rs 40 lakh to be made – from one acre of leased farmland where the brick kiln operates – but employers like him first need to make sure of two things. He explains, “First, I have to ensure the quality of the mud and, second, the quality of the labour. Without tight supervision, the labourers can cut corners to make their work easy and this will affect the quality of the bricks.”
Like profit-driven entrepreneurs everywhere, Mohanan makes no bones about what he is looking for in his workforce. According to him, Oriya migrants are “too quiet”; the Assamese, “too intelligent” and the Bengalis “too aggressive”. He believes that a Tamilian workforce comprising more than 50 per cent women suits him best. He has figured out, apparently, that women are less aggressive in demanding their rights – a feature valued by owners and employers in a state like Kerala where an active trade union movement has resulted in regular strikes and shut downs.
Observes Mohanan approvingly, “I strongly believe that it is the presence of the woman that keeps the Tamilian male worker well-behaved in our brick kilns. Money gets saved, discipline is maintained and children stay well within the boundaries of their living space. The shacks are also kept neat with the kitchens exceptionally clean.”
Since it’s the women who queue up for wages and negotiate for the allotted weekly expenses, they have plenty of bargaining power. They will refuse to fund their husbands’ alcohol binge and this invariably causes a lot of domestic trouble. So far, Mohanan has had to intervene only twice in 15 years in cases of domestic violence because “the Tamilian woman laborer will not endure physical abuse”. In fact, according to him, there are many instances where the wife has hit her husband back if he dared raise his hand against her.
But although employers have reason enough to laud the role of the women in keeping this labour network going, their lives are, in fact, far from ideal. The average age of the woman worker in these kilns is 20. They are also likely to have only basic literacy, since they are generally married by the age of 16 and become mothers before they have turned 20. Early motherhood and hard physical labour have clearly taken a toll on their health. Anaemia levels are high and so also the levels of stillbirths, which indicate how these women work themselves to the bone, even during pregnancy, while not have adequate access to nutritious food or healthcare.
Says Revathy, 23, mother of three children aged between seven and three, “In Tamil Nadu, we don’t get work. But here, in Kerala, my husband and I together earn around Rs 700 (US$1=Rs 54) a day.” She considers this as a good enough wage and does not want to sound “ungrateful” by complaining unnecessarily about her living conditions. She has ensured that her two older children have an uninterrupted education by leaving them back with their grandmother at home, and although their education is expensive she does not want to compromise on this because she wants desperately for her children to be able to live a better life than that of their parents.
Once the monsoons set in – a period that stretches from June to October each year – work in the brick kilns ceases and these families return to their villages in Tamil Nadu. During this period, the only money to be made is from agricultural activity, mostly sugarcane harvesting. A few even own land, but they are small, unproductive holdings that make no real difference to their financial security.
This is why work opportunities in the brick kilns are a lifeline for many. Besides, over the years, they have also become used to life in the neighbouring state. Says young Sumathy, from an arid region like Salem in Tamil Nadu, “We like Kerala. Although things are more costly there, there are compensations. For one, there is plenty of water and we enjoy our baths in the river.” She says she doesn’t have any qualms about using the open toilets provided at the brick kiln sites. “We are all from the same village and know each other, so safety is not an issue,” she smiles.
A little closer questioning results in dissatisfactions spilling out. Some women speak about how their work hours – generally between 8 am to 5.30 pm – should be reduced to nine hours. To be at the site by 8 am, they have to wake up by 4.30 am and complete all their household chores, which, of course, include the daily trek to collect water.
Moreover, as with their counterparts in the other informal sectors, women in brick kiln units are also paid less than the men. The wage is fixed at Rs 40 an hour for the men and Rs 30 for the women, with overtime work up to 7 pm netting them an additional amount of Rs 70 an hour. But, again, this is applicable only to the men because the women by then usually rush home to attend to the evening chores.
Mohanan sees no reason why the women should complain. “They are even given a Sunday off every two weeks. They have access to cable television, including the every popular Sun Direct,” he says. With a touch of righteousness, he adds, “I also give them cakes and sweets on all festival days.”
But cakes and sweets cannot mask the fact that the “homes” of these workers are made up of bent asbestos sheets and that their toilets are deplorable, without any roofs or doors. The lives of the migrant brick workers of Kerala may be marginally better than in states like Bihar and Odisha, but their existence is still a rough, tough grind, that wears down the body and the spirit.