MUMBAI - Hundreds of women brick-kiln workers from India's Punjab state have come together in a rare gathering to demand equal pay and better accommodation, as the country's often invisible women laborers become increasingly vocal in their fight for rights.
More than a thousand workers, most belonging to India's so-called lower castes and tribes, met in the city of Bathinda last week in perhaps the first such gathering in the country.
"The women workers in brick kilns are invisible -- they are not recognized as workers, they don't get paid for their work, and they have no rights or benefits," said Gangambika Sekhar, an advocate with Volunteers for Social Justice, that organized the event.
"We wanted to send a message to the government: 'you say there are no women workers in the state's brick kilns. Well, here they are'," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Unknown number of workers
There are no official figures for the number of people employed to cut, shape and bake clay-fired bricks, mostly by hand, in tens of thousands of brick kilns in India.
According to the Center for Science and Environment, at least 10 million people work in these kilns.
Exploitation of workers, many of them poor migrants from other states, is common as brickmaking is largely unregulated, experts say. Most of the workers are illiterate, paid a pittance, and held in debt bondage.
The wealthy state of Punjab is home to more than 600,000 workers in brick kilns, by some estimates. About half are women, who are not included in the kiln's records and are not paid a separate wage from their husbands.
Many of the women workers are sexually abused, and conditions for pregnant women are particularly bad, as they do not have access to medical facilities, and are forced to work well into their pregnancy, activists say.
"Women are enslaved by the patriarchal system, they are enslaved by the caste system, and they are enslaved by the minimum wage, which is such a pittance that they are forced to live in abject conditions," said Manjit Singh, a retired professor of sociology at Panjab University.
A signature campaign was launched last week in Bathinda to appeal to President Pranab Mukherjee for better conditions for the state's women brick-kiln workers. Activists are also trying to organize the women into unions, similar to efforts in Maharashtra state.
There are signs that women workers elsewhere are heeding the call to unionise and fight for their rights.
Last week, protests in the southern states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu by garment workers, mostly women, forced the government to scrap a controversial proposal to change the rule on pension withdrawals.
"Women workers – from teachers to textile workers and daily-wage workers – are so desperate, they are demanding their rights," Singh said.
"They are learning the benefits of a collective voice, and of coming out on the streets and protesting, rather than doing so within the confines of their workplace. We will see more of this," he said.