Brick kilns face pressure to reform in post-quake Nepal

Nepal’s recent earthquake offers chance to reform country's child labour problem

Nepal’s recent earthquake could push the country’s brick industry into reform, as aid-backed reconstruction projects look to source materials untainted by forced labour.

Brick kilns in Nepal are often accused of using bonded and child labour, exploiting a system of loans and debts to tie workers cheaply to their jobs. Workers pay recruiters to secure their jobs, before being coerced into contracts that can result in little or no pay. Many earn so little, they cannot pay back their debt.

Non-government organisations have been working in the sector to improve labour conditions at the kiln level. In the aftermath of the country’s earthquake, such NGOs may be able to fast-track their change programmes suggests Caleb Shreve, executive director of the Global Fairness Initiative, a US-based NGO working on economic development.

“We are at the beginning of something right now,” said Shreve, whose organisation created Better Brick Nepal to tackle the industry’s issues. “I can’t tell you what our programme will look like in a year. It is a new world in some ways.”

Better Brick Nepal is a three-year programme where the Global Fairness Initiative partners with local organisations to remove forced labour from Nepalese brick manufacturing. The programme also looks to address broader environmental and labour issues inherent in the industry to create ‘clean’ bricks.

“To make a real change and say to a buyer ‘we can supply enough clean bricks’, one of the big challenges was just volume,” said Shreve. “So we chose [to start] with kilns that could produce at enough of a volume to have a meaningful impact. “We wanted to be able to promise an investor in an eco hotel or an NGO building a school that they’re not building it with child labour bricks.”

The project aims to look across the value chain of bricks to try to change the way the system works. This includes influencing those who buy bricks and those involved in development projects, right down to the kiln owners and brickmakers. In the aftermath of the quake, the NGO arranged for engineers from the US, New Zealand and Australia to rapidly assess local buildings, to determine their safety for occupancy. It has also worked to train local engineers to do these assessments and retrofit buildings.

Better Bricks Nepal is also beginning conversations with the Nepali government about rebuilding, looking at how it can focus on reconstruction efforts near kilns that have made progress in areas of social responsibility.

“As rebuilding becomes a focus we are very much in the room as a partner with [the government] in terms of how to rebuild right,” said Shreve. He is confident that the programme has helped kilns progress toward compliance with international labour standards, where workers know their rights and are familiar with safety principles.

Now it is a question of how to scale up the progress made. “We’ve got very deep into the sector,” said Shreve. “The value of partners is that they bring in a lot of different expertise. If we can take that and expand it to other kilns and hold everyone accountable in the right way, I think we can see a very scaled change.”

The networked approach to the issue has been influenced by one of Better Brick Nepal’s primary supporters, Humanity United. The human rights’ focused foundation has been supporting the Global Fairness Initiative’s work as part of its long-term quest to see bricks in Nepal produced without the involvement of forced labour.

“What Humanity United is really interested in is change,” said Tim Isgitt, Humanity United’s director of communications. “We will pull any lever or engage the system in a lot of different ways in order to achieve that change.”

Isgitt cites the work in Nepal as an example of how Humanity United is engaging with existing systems to influence positive change.

“Our thought was could there be a market created for a cleaner brick that could be ‘certified’ as modern slavery free,” he said. “Our theory of change is that we could create a market out there for a cleaner brick, one that is not tainted with labour abuse.

“Of course, then the earthquake happens. We are rethinking the adjustments that we need to make in this strategy; perhaps there’s an opportunity for us to do a better job in getting that market on its feet right now.”

Photo credit: Global Fairness Initiative