Government rejects debt bondage claims at Budgam brick kilns

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Srinagar- Coming to the aid of brick kiln owners in central Kashmir’s Budgam district accused of detaining migrant workers as ‘bonded labourers’, Jammu and Kashmir’s administration on Tuesday refuted claims that an attempt deliberate was underway to defame the Union Territory.

“There are no bonded laborers in Budgam’s brick kilns. This is a malicious and deliberate attempt to defame the Union Territory,” Deputy Commissioner (DC) Budgam, Syed Fakhrudin Hamid said. Kashmir Observer.

Hamid’s reaction comes at a time when Budgam Brick Kilns are accused of detaining migrant workers from Janjgir-Champa and Sakti districts of Chhattisgarh as bonded labourers. A team of Chhattisgarh officials also traveled to the valley to investigate complaints about state workers being forced to work as “bonded” laborers in some brick kilns in Budgam district.

However, the Kashmir Brick Kiln Association denied the allegations of forced labour, while a preliminary investigation by the district administration revealed that the workers were paid in advance by the owners of the brick kilns.

Talk to Kashmir Observer Zahoor Ahmad Malik, chairman of the Kashmir Brick Kilns Association, said the allegation of forced labor was far from the truth as all migrant workers are paid in advance.

“It’s a scam. The Supreme Court said so recently. The workers took the money in advance but didn’t work at all,” Malik told Kashmir Observer.

Malik was referring to a recent Supreme Court ruling that there was a “racket” in the country in which workers “profit” from the concept of “debt bondage,” which in fact does not exist.

The court made the remarks while rejecting a motion for Jammu police to investigate rape and other alleged offenses by a woman, and identify other bonded laborers in Jammu and Kashmir for their release and rehabilitation.

The President’s Brick Kiln Association further stated that migrant workers are hired on a needs basis through a contractor, who charges a good fee to provide the services. The contractor, he said, pays the fixed amount for the labor he brings in from other states in the country.

“This year, the workers were unable to work due to bad weather. They are preparing fake stories just to get back the money they took as an advance,” Malik said.

“Therefore, they filed a lawsuit in their state and took advantage of the lawsuit. Why would we force anyone to work here,” he added.

Brick kiln owners have argued that migrant workers enjoy much better facilities and pay in Kashmir than in other states in the country.

“You must have noticed that hundreds of thousands of workers from different parts of the country come to work in Kashmir. They get a good amount of money and we provide them with good facilities,” said Majeed Ahmad, owner of M21 Brick Kiln.

In the complaint, the workers alleged that they went to return to their home country, but the brick kiln owners were prevented from doing so. Following the complaint, the National Campaign Committee for the Eradication of Debt Bondage (NCCEBL), an umbrella organization of activists, had raised the issue and filed a complaint that 90 migrant and “bondage” workers from Chhattisgarh are stuck in Mangepura’s Brick Oven in Budgame.

However, on September 13, a joint team from the Budgam administration, comprising Subdivision Magistrate Chadoora and Deputy Labor Commissioner, Budgam, inspected the Mangepura and Dangarpura brick kilns and found that there there was no case of bonded labor, as alleged.

According to sources, the SDM has filed a report to Deputy Commissioner Budgam, who will send the report to the Chhattisgarh government.

SDM Chadoora, Prince Noorul Hamid, who visited the twin brick kilns to investigate the allegations, said Kashmir Observer tthat there was no debt bondage and that the allegations made were totally unfounded.

“During our preliminary investigation, we discovered that there was no kind of force or forced servitude. The workers worked freely,” Hamid said. Kashmir Observer.

He added that many groups were working and only the one who was agitated would have been beaten by the owners.

“However, we did not find any bruises on their (workers’) bodies. The allegations were baseless but they (workers) wanted to leave the valley,” Hamid added.

According to SDM, the owner had paid Rs 17 lakh in advance to the contractor who had already distributed the money to the workers.

He added that the administration organized buses and sent them home.

Officials found the owners and contractor had paid the worker their wages, but “there was no evidence”.
“There was no formal agreement and the payment was also made offline. When they could not prove their agreement, we asked the workers to leave,” added Hamid.

The manager said that was the only group that wanted to come back, others are still working, while many left after finishing their work.

Heera Lal, the contractor who arranged the Ahmad workers’ M21 brick kiln, said Kashmir Observer that the migrant workers deceived the owner and played a trick to leave Kashmir.

“They thought that the government would provide them with financial assistance after they pleaded the cause of forced labor,” Lal said. Kashmir Observer.

The migrant workers, he said, came to Kashmir on their own and no one forced them to work anywhere.

“The owner covered all their expenses, including food, but the workers cheated him,” Lal added.

Meanwhile, DC Budgam Syed Fakhrudin Hamid said Kashmir Observer that the leader of a particular group of workers has been led astray by someone in New Delhi.

“Furthermore, there was a monetary dispute between two groups of workers. Someone wanted to defame the Union Territory via social media,” he added.

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Auqib Javeed

Auqib Javeed is special correspondent with Kashmir Observer and tweets @AuqibJaveed


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