“My parents worked as daily wage laborers at our native Veeranamoor village in Villupuram district. One day, Maestri (another term for contractor) Muniamma came to our village and she asked us to come and work in a brick kiln. I was a small boy then. My father, mother and I came and worked here in this brick kiln (Vel Murugan Chambers). I was 7 years old when I came here to work and I still work here and I am 25 years old. There were a total of fifty families working in the brick kiln and out of the fifty families; fifteen families were from our village. We all were involved in the process of baking bricks.” - Gopi

Gopi’s father had taken an advance from the brick kiln owner and Gopi was working towards clearing his father’s debts. Additionally, to his father’s debt, he had also taken an advance of 20,000 rupees for his wedding three years previous. He is working day in and day out to pay back the debt. He has only been able to pay back 5000 rupees to date. Gopi and his wife fill coal in the kiln ten to twenty times in one shift. They have to do two shifts in a day. Their first shift starts at 6:00 AM and ends at noon, with their second shift starting at 6:00 PM and ending at midnight. Due to lack of sleep, Gopi and his wife are always exhausted. If they ask to rest, the maestri refuses. Once, due to extreme exhaustion Gopi decided to rest in a room inside the brick kiln. When discovered, the maestri shouted at Gopi, telling him to get back to work. The maestri used abusive language and slapped Gopi, telling him to get back to work.

The working conditions were extremely poor and stressful as they were not allowed to go elsewhere and work. Gopi and his wife could not leave because they had taken advances and had to stay and work. They weren’t even allowed to leave for weddings or funerals. A year ago Gopi’s grandparents died and only his father was allowed to go and attend the funeral while the rest were forced to stay. This had happened several times with others too. Even those who are permitted to leave are supposed to return the same day to the kiln. If they did not return on the same day, the maestri searches them and tracks them down. The brick owner and maestri assured wages of 1000 rupees for 6 days of work but only gave 200-300 rupees per family stating the remaining money was deducted from the advances. The working conditions in the brick kiln were also terrible. During off (monsoon) season the owner and maestri asked workers to clean the wet areas by pouring the rain water out of the drying area and asking laborers to cut bricks.

These families eventually learned about an organization that supports victims of labor abuses to move out of the system through government support. The district government stepped up to help them and officially released them by giving release certificates and rehabilitation money. Following a meeting with the district government and Habitat for Humanity India, each family was allotted one and half acres of land to build their own home on. Father Rafael from the Pazhangudi Irular Sangam is part of the District Forum and has raised fund of 270,000 rupees to build houses.

The families have agreed to repay the money with an interest rate of 4%. The government has also agreed to place all 26 families with the PMAY program, dispersing 210,000 rupees. They are also contributing labor for cost reduction purposes. Building has started, and the families need to find work.  Organizations are in dialogue with the government to find opportunities. Habitat India has had the opportunity to partner with these families as they begin to build homes of their own. Through the support of Habitat India and the government, these family’s lives are changing drastically, creating a new life that is debt-free for their children. Habitat India continues to work with these communities, however continue to experience challenges in raising funds to fully support the community.