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On a slim scaffolding

By Rakesh Ganguli

Standards laid down for women labourers under the Factories Act, like handling limits of 20 kg, rarely apply to construction workers. All norms remain negotiable in the construction industry and labourers and their organisations must give in to the demands of contractors and builders. In such conditions, women workers are especially vulnerable

The tremendous growth in the IT sector in Pune has boosted the construction industry in the city. Huge investments and speculation are fuelling the boom. Builders are cashing in on the soaring demand for residential, commercial and industrial spaces. Rates per prime square foot are becoming astronomical.

This growth means a greater demand for labour. Workers from Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Bihar , Rajasthan and Orissa have been coming to Pune to work on its many construction sites.

Kunwariyabai and her husband, adivasis from Khaira village in Chhattisgarh, were brought by a thekedar to Pune three years ago to work on a construction site. Like thousands of others, although Kunwariyabai and her husband literally construct Pune's boom they themselves barely manage to scrape a living. Making ends meet in a city devoid of support systems is an everyday battle. Contractors, though, prefer migrant labourers because they do not have ‘connections'; local workers are relatively better networked.

Gangubai came to Pune from Raichur district in Karnataka. She belongs to the Laman community. Her family owns two acres of agricultural land, but lack of irrigation forces them to look for work. Wages for agricultural work in the village are as low as Rs 10 a day for women and Rs 20 for men. With four daughters and a loan of Rs 20,000 taken for her sister-in-law's marriage, Gangubai and her husband were left with no choice but to migrate a year ago. Her husband drinks heavily and is violent, which makes things even more difficult for the family.

Laxmi, from Akkalkot in Maharashtra , works on a construction site just outside Pune. Her family owns several acres of agricultural land in Dudhne village, but frequent drought makes agriculture unviable. With no work and no money, Laxmi and her husband were forced to migrate nine years ago. Laxmi has been working for daily wages since she was 10; she was married at the age of 13. Laxmi though feels ‘privileged' to have a water tap close to her home, as well as electricity.

The construction industry in Pune has grown in inverse proportion to the wellbeing of the workers. The workplace is unsafe, the workers have no social security in terms of compensation, insurance, shelter, food security, access to drinking water, education, or healthcare. Women construction workers in the city face the dual burden of having to do gruelling household tasks and finding remunerative work.

Women working on construction sites in Pune have to negotiate with contractors and others for access to water in the vicinity and are often forced to walk long distances to fetch water -- at times making six trips that can take up to 30 minutes per trip. If the labour camp does have a tap, filling water still involves long lines and squabbles. Most of the workers, because they migrate, don't posses ration cards and are forced to buy foodgrain at higher market prices. The women must also buy kerosene or firewood for cooking. They are forced to bathe and defecate out in the open. Healthcare at public hospitals is indifferent or comes at a cost, and many women are forced to visit private clinics, especially during pregnancy.

On the site, women are paid Rs 60-70 a day while men are paid Rs 100-175. Masons earn up to Rs 175-250 a day. Wages are paid weekly. The division of labour is gendered. Masonry is a male-dominated skill as are carpentry and other skilled jobs. Women carry headloads of brick, sand, stone, cement and water to the masons, and also sift sand.

The labour is also divided along regional lines. Labourers from Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh are skilled in digging and masonry; labourers from Rajasthan are skilled in carpentry and marble work; and others are hired as general labour. Most of the migrants belong to scheduled castes and tribes, and OBC (other backward classes) groups.

The women's working day, combining housework and work at the site, often stretches to 14 hours. When doing slab work, which fetches more money, it can extend to 16 hours. Young women at the sites are required to climb the scaffolding at times. Other than the one-hour lunch break, rest hours for unwell or pregnant women are left to the discretion of the contractor. Women are ‘allowed' to breast-feed infants, but the contractor can revoke these ‘liberties' at any time. Crèches are a rare feature at construction sites.

Standards laid down for women labourers under the Factories Act, like handling limits of 20 kg, rarely apply to construction workers. Despite laws, such norms remain negotiable in the construction industry and labourers and their organisations must give in to the demands of contractors and builders. The absence of written contracts and manipulated work records (if maintained) diminish the merit of their pleas in the labour courts. Very few cases actually reach the labour courts; even if they do, the legal procedures are too cumbersome for the migrant workers. The labour office, the municipal corporation and the courts are unfriendly places for migrant workers.

Veteran activist Baba Adhav says: “The lives of migrant construction labourers seem to be of no value to anyone. One labourer dies in the city every day on an average, but no one seems to be bothered. The chain of exploitation starts from their own villages. A local thekedar supplies workers to the contractor in the city. Both get cuts out of the wages paid to the labourers. There is no direct transaction between the builder and the labourers. The big fish remain safe this way, come what may.”

Laws like the Construction Workers Act (1996) are brazenly flouted, Adhav says. “No safety gear is offered to workers or precautionary measures taken for hazardous work like blasting. The condition of women is worse. They are often subjected to sexual harassment. Alcoholism among men and wife battering is common. We have also noticed a high incidence of infant mortality in these communities.”

A number of existing laws, if implemented, would help to protect the rights of the unorganised labour force, which forms over 90% of the 300 million workers in India . The Interstate Migrant Workmen Act (1979), the Contract Labour System (Regulation and Abolition Act) (1970), the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act (1975), the Equal Remuneration Act (1976), the Factories Act, the Trade Union Act (1926), cooperative laws, and India's ratification of the ILO's convention on child labour all aim to protect workers. “The laws exist. The problem is their weak or non-implementation. This propels the exploitation to unimaginable limits,” Adhav says.

The Environmental Status Report of the Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC) estimated that migration would increase from 43,900 people (recorded) in 2001 to 88,200 in 2006. The city's population has gone up from 25,40,936 in 2001 to 31,87,800 in 2006. According to the census, a person is a ‘migrant' if the place listed for that person during the census is different from his or her place of birth. However, a person may have migrated more than once, and the census does not take into account the true nature of migration in India .

“It is a great challenge to organise migrant construction workers in Pune,” Adhav says. “Who do they complain against and what do they do if thrown out of this city? The multiple and high vulnerabilities that besiege the lives of migrant construction labourers leave organisations willing to take up their cause with hardly any alternatives to engage with such a huge labour force. This is nothing but a new form of bonded labour.”

The Pune Bandhkam Mazdoor Sabha (BMS), an organisation of construction workers, is struggling to make group insurance for construction labourers mandatory, apart from the safety and security of workers. It is in dialogue with the PMC, which gives permission for various processes at different stages of construction, to ensure that labour laws are implemented before granting permission. The BMS is also in dialogue with the Promoters and Builders' Association of Pune (PBAP), demanding fair standards for construction labourers. The PBAP has included labour welfare in a four-point programme to be implemented over the next two years. It has set up a labour welfare committee to outline plans to improve the conditions of the labour force and set appropriate targets, with an emphasis on health, education and safety.

Kunwariyan's and Gangubai's children attend the balwadi and the non-formal education centre in the labour camp where the family lives, run by Doorstep School . “Sustaining our balwadis and non-formal education centres at construction sites in and around Pune has been a challenge amid the great uncertainty that construction labourers live in,” says Rajani Paranjpe, president of Doorstep School . “Sometimes, migrant families have vanished overnight, and we don't know if they have fled the exploitative work and living conditions or moved to another site. Our attempts to organise the mothers of our students have failed. The double burden of household and remunerative work is strenuous and leaves the women with no space for participating in initiatives like ours. Their migratory nature has been the biggest hurdle for any development project to engage with them.”

Most of the women construction workers have never been to school and some cannot calculate their wages accurately. Some long to return to their villages if they could find sustainable livelihoods, but others are now too used to the city. None of them have heard of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. Kunwariyabai's biggest concern at the moment is the fate of her unborn child. Many of the women are apprehensive about the monsoon. Two children were swept away in the floods three years ago, and the homes of many of the construction workers were flooded. Most of all, the women hope for a better future for their children -- one of them speaks of her dream of a job for her son where he will get paid even if he takes leave, and which will provide him with an old-age pension.

(Rakesh Ganguli is a trained social worker. He works on organising communities, especially women and youth, on issues related to gender, human rights and cultural diversity)

InfoChange News & Features, September 2007