KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Nabila works 10 hours or more a day, doing the hard, dirty work of packing mud into molds and pulling carts full of bricks. At the age of 12, she has been working in brick factories for half her life and is probably the oldest of all her co-workers.
Already high, the number of child labor in Afghanistan is rising, fueled by the collapse of the economy after the Taliban took over the country and the world cut off financial aid just over a year ago.
A recent Save the Children survey estimated that half of the country’s families put their children to work to put food on the table as livelihoods dwindled.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the many brick factories on the highway north of the capital, Kabul. The conditions in the furnaces are difficult even for adults. But in almost all of them, children as young as four or five are found working alongside their families from early morning until dark in the heat of summer.
Children do each step in the brick making process. They haul canisters of water, carry wooden brick molds full of mud to expose to the sun to dry. They load and push carts full of dried bricks into the kiln for firing, then push carts full of baked bricks. They sift through the smoldering coals that have been burned in the furnace for pieces that can still be used, inhaling soot and burning their fingers.
Children work with a determination born of knowing little but the needs of their families. When asked about toys or a game, they smile and shrug. Only a few of them went to school.
Nabila, 12 years old, has been working in brickyards since she was five or six years old. Like many other bricklayers, her family works part of the year in a kiln near Kabul and part of the year in a kiln outside Jalalabad, near the Pakistan border.
A few years ago, she had to go to school in Jalalabad for a while. She would like to go back to school, but she can’t – her family needs her work to survive, she said with a slight smile.
“We can’t think about anything else but work,” she said.
Mohabbat, a 9-year-old boy, stopped for a moment with a pained expression on his face while carrying a load of charcoal. “My back hurts,” he said.
Asked what he wanted, he first asked, “What is a wish?” Then when that was explained, he fell silent for a moment, thinking. “I want to go to school and eat good food,” he said, then added, “I want to work well so we can have a house.”
The landscape around the factories is bleak and desolate, and the chimneys of the furnaces emit black, sooty smoke. Families live in dilapidated mud houses next to the kiln, each with their own corner where they make bricks. For most, the daily meal is bread soaked in tea.
Rahim has three children who work with him in the brick kiln, ranging in age from 5 to 12. The children were in school, and Rahim, who goes by one name, said he resisted putting them to work for a long time. But even before the Taliban came to power, as the war dragged on and the economy worsened, he said he had no choice.
“There is no other way,” he said. “How can they study when we have no bread to eat? Survival is more important.”
Workers receive the equivalent of $4 for every 1,000 bricks they make. One adult working alone can’t make that much in a day, but if children help, they can make 1,500 bricks a day, workers say.
According to research by Save the Children, the percentage of families who say they have a child working outside the home rose from 18% to 22% from December to June. This would mean that more than a million children across the country are working. The research included more than 1,400 children and more than 1,400 caregivers in seven provinces. Another 22% of children said they were asked to work in the family business or farm.
The survey also pointed to the collapse of livelihoods that Afghans have suffered in the past year. In June, 77% of families surveyed said they had lost half their income or more compared to last year, up from 61% in December.
One recent day, a light rain began in a furnace, and at first the children were cheerful, thinking that there would be a refreshing rain in the heat. Then the wind picked up. Dust hit them, covering their faces. The air turned yellow with dust. Some children could not open their eyes, but they worked. The rain turned into a downpour.
The children were drenched. One boy was dripping with water and mud, but like the others, he said he couldn’t get out without finishing his job. Streams of heavy rain carved trenches in the soil around them.
“We’re used to it,” he said. Then he said to the other boy, “Hurry up, let’s finish.”