Brick workers enslaved for life as Afghan warlords profit

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Every day that Dil Agha works at his backbreaking job at a brick kiln on the outskirts of Afghanistan’s capital Kabul, from before sunrise to well after sunset, he digs himself deeper into debt.

He knows he will never be able to pay back what he owes to the kiln owner who lent him a few thousand dollars for a family emergency, and that when he dies, his children will inherit the burden that will ensure his family remains enslaved for generations.

He is one of hundreds of people that the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission calls the “slaves of the 21st century.” They toil as indentured laborers at brick kilns that make millions of dollars a year for their owners. The law is powerless to help them and a government official says many in the government are too fearful to speak out.

Rafiullah Baidar, the spokesman for the AIHRC said families like Dil Agha’s have been stripped of their human rights — to education, health care, and decent working conditions, to name only a few.

“All those people working in the brick kilns are the slaves of the 21st Century,” he said. “They are like prisoners; this horrible situation is a complete violation of their human rights.”

For the past 15 years, Afghanistan has been the recipient of billions of dollars in aid, most from the United States, to fight an insurgency and rebuild the country after decades of conflict. The country’s leaders were in Brussels this month to secure pledges of another $15 billion through to 2020. And yet the economy is not growing, the war is suspended in stalemate, and corruption is rampant.

For people like Dil Agha — who is 23 years old with a wife and three children — the government appears incapable of creating jobs to help them build normal lives.

Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world, with a huge wealth divide: at the top are billionaires, at the very bottom are people like those working at the kiln in the Deh Sabz district, on Kabul’s eastern outskirts.

Here, most of the workers are from poor villages in the eastern province of Nangarhar. The kiln boss, also from Nangarhar, lent them money after visiting the village and offering financial help to anyone who needed it.

People working here say the kiln boss then offered them jobs during the warm-weather months, April to October, to repay their loans. The pay depends on productivity but workers say it ranges from 1000-1500 afghanis ($15-$23) per day.

Before they return to their villages for the winter, the manager usually lends them more money so they can buy enough food and fuel to survive the winter months. By the time they return to the kiln for the spring, they owe the manager here, Hashmat Ali, even more money. And so the cycle continues.

Ali is unmoved. “This is how it works,” he said. “If something happens to a family or the father dies, his children have to work and pay the debt.”

How it works in reality is much more complex: the land on which many of Kabul’s 442 brick factories operate is owned by oligarchs and former warlords who operate above the law, said a government official who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.

“All brick kilns in Kabul belong to powerful people and warlords,” he said. “First they give loans to very poor people and then make them work as brick-makers and use them as their slaves.”

Each month, the Deh Sabz district’s 350 kilns produce an average of 700,000 bricks, which in a six-month season totals 4.2 million each. That’s 245 million bricks from just one district of Kabul, all made by indentured laborers, some of them children as young as 4 or 5 years old.

Ali said the bricks are sold to construction projects across the country, at 500 afghanis (about $7.5) per thousand raw or 3,200 (about $48) afghanis per thousand baked. This means huge profits for the landowning warlords.

Dil Agha and his family are among hundreds of families who live in these unimaginably harsh conditions, a constant downward spiral of misery and debt they can never escape.

“Until we can find a fundamental solution for their financial problems, create job opportunities according to the laws of the country, find ways to free them from dependency on those money lenders, we won’t be able to solve their problems,” Baidar said.

Far from helping the kiln workers, the government has little idea how many people are involved either in Kabul or across the country. Hashmat Ali and others like him appear to be operating with impunity in a legal no-man’s land.

The National Environment Protection Agency seems to be the only regulatory body that has moved on the kilns — and then only “to protect the environment,” according to the agency’s head of monitoring and evaluation, Nek Mohammad.

“We managed to move them outside the city to protect the environment, but still that area is not suitable as they create so much pollution, harming the air and environment,” he said.

For Dil Agha, the quality of the air he breathes is the least of his concerns. He and his brothers borrowed 650,000 Pakistani rupees, the equivalent of about $6,100, four years ago to pay for medical treatment for their grandmother, who suffered kidney problems, and a sister who had broken her leg. Since then, they have so far only managed to pay back $1,500.

“My little son has no future. When he grows up he will have to make bricks to help pay off my debt,” Dil Agha said. “If I wasn’t in debt, I could send him to school to get educated so he could have a good future, help himself and us as well.”

“But now his future is making bricks, so his future is ruined.”

Working nearby in the late afternoon sun is Alifa, who is 65 but much looks older after many years at a Deh Sabz kiln. She is here to help her 70-year-old husband Gul Asgher and 28-year-old son Anwarullah pay off a 70,000 afghani (about $1,000) loan. She has seven other children and 12 grandchildren, she said.

“We don’t have anything. We have so many problems living here in this mud and dust,” she said, as she measured off a quantity of mud, rolled it in dust and piled it up for the others to press in the oblong brick molds.

“If we’re lucky one day we will go back to our village. Otherwise, I’ll die here and hope someone takes my body home.”