Loreto Sealdah offers education to migrant child workers

Millions of women and children are performing back-breaking labour in brickfields across India for about $1.30 a day. Australian journalist Elouise Hahn, who spent three months in Kolkata filming a documentary on the issue, tells Grazia it can’t go on.

IT’S A SCENE so shocking I can scarcely believe I’m witnessing it: 5-year-olds digging for clay, moulding it into bricks and carrying mountains of them across dusty fields in temperatures that can reach 40 degrees.

Their bodies are in constant pain – and they have trouble breathing as a result of the swirl of dust that surrounds them – yet they have no choice but to carry out the hard labour, day after day, to help support their impoverished families. Staggeringly, it’s estimated there are 15 million people working in 30,000 brickfields across India.

I find myself among the dirt and rubble of one such place located on the outskirts of Kolkata, the capital of the state of West Bengal, where hundreds of poor migrants – including children aged 5 to 15 – work 11-hour days to hand-make thousands of bricks.

They aren’t hugely heavy on their own, weighing about 2.5kg each, but piled high on wheelbarrows that must then be pushed to drying boards, it’s no surprise the weaker workers often pass out in the searing heat. Outbreaks of tuberculosis are also rampant, with many young children suffering prolonged exposure to sand and dust, and with little or no access to medical help. Yet they have no choice but to work...and no one is exempt.

I meet Alsha, a pregnant 24-year-old who’s due to give birth any day. She is working hard lifting piles of bricks before running to dump them at the next station. Speaking through an interpreter, the expectant mother tells me she’s suffered five miscarriages due to the stress working in the brickfields puts on her body. “I lift such heavy piles of bricks just hours before I give birth that many of them die. I would not work if my family did not need the money to live, but there is no choice,” she says.

I learn it’s not uncommon for women to return to the brickfields just three hours after giving birth. For their efforts, they earn just 70 rupees (about $1.30) a day, with illegal child or teenage workers making even less. Tragically, India has the highest rate of child slavery in the world.

Watching a 7-year-old named Anita carrying perilously high piles of clay, I ask what she’d like to do if she wasn’t working to help support her parents and five siblings. She tells me: “I wish I could go to school and be a teacher.”
Talking to these young children, who are so desperate to break free from this cycle of poverty, is heartbreaking. It’s hard to know what to do to help. India has one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, which means demand for bricks will only increase.

There are local organisations, however, making some progress towards change. Loreto Sealdah, a Catholic school in Kolkata, has set up 26 schools on the grounds of some of the 3000 local brickfields so child workers have the chance to receive an education before and after work.

Donations pay for the salaries of teachers and for teaching supplies, such as notebooks and pens. It’s a drop in the ocean when you consider just how many brickfields operate across the country, but at least it’s a step in the right direction – and one that will hopefully inspire a movement of people committed to helping the cause.

For more information or to donate, visitwww.loretosealdah.com