Although the floods that have engulfed Akilpur and its surrounding fields have subsided from their week-old peaks, the ovens are still surrounded by water – Copyright AFP Arif ALI
Brick ovens overlooking the small village of Akilpur in Pakistan’s Punjab province are now derelict, having been extinguished by heavy rains that have caused the worst floods in the country’s history.
Although the floods that have engulfed Akilpur and its surrounding fields have receded from their peaks a week ago, the furnaces are still surrounded by water.
Most of those who lived locally — part of the country’s multi-million dollar workforce known as “daily rates” for their part-time wages — left their homes in favor of higher, dry lots.
“I come here every day on my bike and go from one oven to another looking for work, but I don’t find anything,” said Muhammad Ayoub, an itinerant worker.
Now the road that runs through the village has become a kind of town square for the kiln workers, who find themselves homeless and unemployed.
Ayub, 40, has a sick mother and an 8-year-old daughter to take care of.
When his house was destroyed by the torrential rains that preceded the flood, he sent them to a relative’s house near the village.
But as soon as the flood hit, his family was forced to take refuge in a makeshift campsite on a hill outside the village.
More than 33 million people in Pakistan have been affected by flooding caused by record monsoon rains that flooded a third of the country, killing at least 1,300 people.
The floods have destroyed or severely damaged nearly two million homes or commercial premises, and for the rebuilding process to begin, stoves like those at Akilpur must be lit again.
– Earn less than $3 per shift –
Thousands of small brick factories and kilns are scattered across much of Pakistan, which is a vital supplier of building materials to a country of 220 million people.
At the moment, piles of bricks that are supposed to be delivered to construction sites across the country are partially submerged by flood waters.
Ayub worked 12-hour days making bricks, earning less than $3 (Rs. 600) per shift.
In the morning he worked in the fields surrounding the village and could get a short nap in the afternoon before his shift started again.
With the ovens closed and the fields flooded, his daily wages disappeared.
Where should the worker go? he asked AFP.
“Wherever workers go looking for work, they return empty-handed.”
Daily wages make up one of the poorest sections of Pakistani society and many of them in the countryside are exploited by unscrupulous big farmers and factory owners who effectively keep them in slavery.
In particular, brick factories are notorious for using child labor, which is illegal under Pakistani law.
One of the youngest among the 50 or so workers camped near Akilpur is Muhammad Ismail, who joined his father at the brick factory almost a year ago when he was 12 years old.
He helped shape the clay used to make bricks before they went into the kiln, hoping his labors would help his parents feed his six younger siblings.
After leaving his house during the flood, Ismail’s father had to borrow money to buy flour and other necessities for his family.
“But now we are in debt,” Ismail said.
“I looked for work every day with my father. We need to pay off our debt, but I’m losing hope.”
It is not uncommon in parts of Pakistan for those who go into debt and cannot repay it, to be forced into bonded labor for years as the interest on the original amount continues to rise.
This debt can often be passed down from generation to generation.
Akilpur workers have asked the owner to fire up the stoves so they can resume work, but Ayub believes they are asking for the impossible.
“The water collected here will not run dry for at least another three months,” he said.
“And after the water dries up, the repair will take another two to two and a half months.”