Brick by Brick in Bangladesh

In my last blog, I mentioned that pollution and economic struggles are significant problems in Dhaka  (Life in Dhaka).  Little did I know that the air I was breathing in the city would seem pristine compared to that at my next stop, the brick factories outside of Dhaka.

While driving out of Dhaka, one cannot help but notice many long thin chimneys on both sides of the road.  When told by my local guide that they were brick factories, I asked him why there were so many.  Because Bangladesh is growing fast and needs cheap building materials, we know how to make bricks as we have been doing it for years, he answered.  Curious about how this was done, I asked if we could stop and have a look.  It quickly became clear that they are making bricks now in probably the same way it has been done for decades, namely all by hand, brick by brick.

During the dry season, when there is no work to do in the fields, workers of all ages come from rural parts of Bangladesh to earn a little money in brickyards. They often stay for months, living in houses built in the yard, often with their families.  The work is backbreaking and exhausting, to say the least.

One can find clusters of men dealing with different stages of the process.  One group is busy extracting mud from which the bricks are made, mixing it with water to keep it workable.  Wheelbarrows then transport the mud to another group of people, the brick makers.  This is where the mud is put in wooden molds to give the bricks the desired shape.  The brick makers work extremely fast as they are paid per brick made.

The next phase is the baking of the bricks. Here a group of workers brings the raw bricks to the kiln to be baked by balancing as many as sixteen loose bricks in two piles on top of their heads.  When the baking is done, and the bricks have cooled off, another group carries them out the same way.  This was mesmerizing to watch.  In one of the factories I visited, workers from both groups (ingoing and outgoing) were using the same path, so would be intertwined all the while balancing their heavy loads.  This is a human factory in its most primitive form.  The entire process involves workers wearing their own clothes and no special protective gear.  They are constantly breathing irritating red dust for hours on end.  All this is done for about $25-30/week, depending on the worker’s speed.

The red dust also spreads to nearby towns and villages, potentially creating health problems for all.  No brick factory can be built within 5km of residential areas. Yet everywhere across the country, bricks are produced close to villages and cities.

And the dust is not the only environmental challenge.  The ovens used to bake the bricks are heated using coal, which is also carried by workers using baskets on their heads.

With the primitive balancing act involved, of course, many bricks are damaged, but nothing is wasted here.  The broken bricks are smashed into tiny pieces to be converted into sand.  Bangladesh does not produce enough sand needed for building materials, roads, and cement, so the damaged bricks are an important source of these materials that will be used all over the country.  I guess what was taken from the earth returns to the earth.

Watching this process, it is not only bricks that are broken.  It is heartbreaking to see people working in such harsh conditions for so little pay. Although the output yields building material for a low monetary cost, there is a high price being paid by the workers, residents, and the environment.



P.S. I am also showing some of these images on the Social Documentary Network website. Here is a link to the exhibit. 



5 Responses

  1. And people wonder why folks from other countries want to cross our borders with their children to try to find a better life? Excellent post and such a tragic story. The worker in photo #5 looks about 15 years old and the photos of the workers transporting bricks on their heads are most disturbing. I’ve always wanted to go to Bangladesh, but don’t think I’m up to it. Good for you!
    France, you should publish a book of all your awesome blogs!

    1. Sally, Sorry for the late reply, I did not see your comment until today (my mistake). You are very right about this being a tragic story and quite frankly I saw quite a few of these in Bangladesh. Though people are nice and welcoming, the country is struggling quite a bit (I am sure two wars and a famine did not help). Child labor is a way of life, as most families in the country side can’t survive without it. Happy to talk to you about the trip when I am in LJ in August if you are around. Thanks for your suggestions about a book, but it is probably more work than what I am willing to do 😉 Warmly, France

  2. Another great blog supported by amazing photos. I agree with Sally about publishing a book. Keep it up.

Would love to hear from you!

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