Brick kilns take their toll in Iraq

With reconstruction under way, demand for bricks has risen, and so have deaths from accidents and pollution.

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KUT, Iraq // On days when the wind comes from the north, oily filth from the brick factory chimneys blows over the nearby homes of labourers, coating everything and everyone in black soot. This dark, greasy dust haunts the days and nights of the residents of the factory area on the outskirts of Kut, the pollution something they live with and die from.

With reconstruction - albeit faltering - under way in Iraq, demand for bricks has risen and so has output, sometimes with the assistance of the US military, desperate to foster any kind of private enterprise that might provide jobs for unemployed young men. Child labour is the rule rather than the exception, industrial accidents common and mortality rates high. Ahmad Khadhim's parents worked in the factories that run alongside the main road between Baghdad and Kut, 170km south of the capital. He was born there and, after cursory schooling, began labouring in the kilns as a young teenager. He has been there ever since, living a short walk from the brick ovens and their Dickensian smoke stacks.

Now in his late 20s, Mr Khadhim sees no prospect either of escape or improvement and expects his son to follow in his footsteps - if he survives to working age. "I started when I was young and there was never any alternative. We needed the money to survive," he said. "Now I'm trying to help support 11 people and that means I have to work as much as I can. It's a trap that no one can get out of." A typical day begins at 1am, the labourers preferring the relative cool of night to the blistering temperatures of summer days.

They stack bricks in huge, roughly built, crude-oil heated furnaces, dressed only in shabby tracksuits and with scarves to protect their faces from the heat, smoke and dust. "The temperatures [inside the ovens] are close to unbearable and the children are in there with us," said Abbas Rahim. "There is always black dust in the air, it's in your lungs, in the water, in the food. Everyone is sick." Children, some seven years old, work alongside the adults rather than making the long commute to the nearest school. Even heavily pregnant women are required to pitch in by families living in poverty.

Shifts last between eight and 10 hours, with monthly pay running at up to US$400 (Dh1,500), barely enough to keep a large extended family alive. "People die young here, you are old by the time you're 40 and you're probably not going to live much longer than that," Mr Khadhim said. "Usually it's the lungs that go first, but kidneys also fail because there is no clean drinking water and no one can afford to buy bottled water."

The central government, as well as the provincial council, headquartered in Kut, have both pledged action, threatening to close factories that do not modernise. Local officials said they had closed down three factories in the last year. In practice, however, wealthy factory owners easily circumvent environmental and worker protection agencies, which have limited powers and remain hamstrung by Iraq's political instability and corruption.

Khterer Jathea has fathered 12 children, five of whom died before the age of 10. "They were sick but we had no money for medicine or doctors so we just had to watch them die," he said. "No one helped, no one was interested in helping. We were told their lungs had been burnt, and some had cancer. "If I leave here, I'll have no work and will starve to death. If I stay here, I'll die from the work and diseases, and so will my children. There are no options."

Moaid Gharnim, an economic analyst who has consulted on studies about Iraq's brick factories, said the government had yet to come up with a plan to solve the problems. "Promises have been made to do something about these places but in reality nothing is done," he said. "The reality is that Iraq needs bricks and no one wants to go in and deal with this issue. "Cleaning this up will be expensive; it's cheaper to just keep on poisoning everything."

Brick factories, all similar in style, are a common sight in Iraq and employ tens of thousands of people nationwide. US military commanders overseeing reconstruction projects helped to get some of them, including the huge Narhwan factory complex east of Baghdad, restarted after years of sanctions and insurgency. The theory behind the projects was that employment opportunities would prevent angry young men from becoming militants.

In Kut's brick factory area, however, labourers were furious over their situation and said politicians had betrayed them. Rather than undermining militancy, locals said the conditions had left residents disillusioned with democracy and were turning the factories into an incubator of despair and radicalism. "As far as I'm concerned there is no government in Iraq," said Mr Khadhim. "If there was, it would do something about this. The owner comes, he doesn't care about the working conditions, he doesn't mind if he sees a seven-year-old lifting bricks at 3am, he's just running his business and making money.

"People die from time to time when the oven roof collapses on top of them, or they break their legs when bricks fall. How can a government accept this?" In the run-up to the March 7 national elections, candidates trying to win parliamentary seats visited the factories as part of their campaign, an event the brick factory workers remember with deep bitterness. "They come, hand us a blanket and a promise and then we never see or hear from them again; it was the same in all the other elections," said Mr Khadhim. "We demand action. This suffering must end."