Photo: Brooke / Freya Dowson
"It feels like hell on earth" - first impressions can be long lasting and even today, I can still remember my first visit to a brick kiln, the dust in my eyes, the dirt on my face, the smell of burning coal, the intensity of people working hour after hour in temperatures exceeding 40°C. I was there to see how Brooke was helping the horses and donkeys at work in this world which felt like something from a horror movie, surrounded by smoking chimneys as the bricks were fired for several days at a time. Extremely hazardous and difficult conditions for anyone to work in, but it wasn't just the animals suffering. We saw people living in poverty, children working alongside their parents as whole families were employed to support the production of millions of clay bricks each year.
Traditional brick production is the backbone of urban development throughout South Asia, and yet I was surprised that very little is known about it. The industry employs millions of people and hundreds of thousands of animals, generating highly pollutant emissions for many months of the year. And yet despite its scale and significant impact on people, animals and the environment, traditional brick production remains informal and unregulated.
Perhaps it is easier for people to bury their heads in the sand - it is probably no surprise that the traditional brick making industry is largely invisible on the global, regional and national policy agendas. This needs to change. Greater political leadership and action are needed to make the sector a higher priority, and addressed in the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
At Brooke, we recognise that from the sourcing of its workforce to the myriad of socio-economic and underlying cultural factors, the brick industry's challenges are multiple and complex. The role of livestock in the brick production value chain is poorly understood and cannot be addressed in isolation.
Photo: Brooke / Freya Dowson
But there is a way forward. This week, working together with international partners the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and The Donkey Sanctuary, we are excited to be launching a new policy report "Brick by Brick: Unveiling the full picture of South Asia's brick kiln industry and building the blocks for change". It is the first time the issues of human labour, animal welfare and the environment have been examined together. The report identifies there are clear linkages between these three aspects that must be considered to bring about positive change.
We intend to bring traditional brick production and its challenges to the attention of global and national policy-makers. On 26 and 27 January, the three partners are coming together at a multi-lateral conference in Nepal to launch this report. Organised by The South Asia Initiative to End Violence Against Children (SAIEVAC) and hosted by the government of Nepal, the event will bring together governments from the region and international agencies who want to help tackle the problems with this industry.
It is unacceptable in the 21st century that we still see animals and people suffering in this way - governments must take more responsibility and change needs to happen. It is only by working together that we will be able to make improvements, and improvements are desperately needed.
For all the horses, donkeys and mules working in brick kilns across the world, and all the families who are involved in such terrible working conditions, the time has come for things to change.