People who build our cities: The plight of construction workers in India

People who build our cities: The plight of construction workers in India

Swaniti Initiative | May 22, 2019 | The Swaniti Blog

As per the government of India, the construction sector contributes to 9% of the GDP and employs 44 million workers, becoming the second largest employer in India in 2017. We also aim at making our construction market the third largest globally by 2025. Surprisingly, while it aims for greatness, the sector is also one where the workforce is forced to work in deplorable conditions with no provision of basic shelter, food, sanitation, safety, health care. According to ILO numbers quoted in a British Safety Council study, 11,616 construction workers on an average die due to work-related hazards in a year.  

The construction industry saw a sharp rise in employment due to the increase in demand for labor and people looking for ‘better work opportunities’ during the late 80s and early 90s. The increase in employment should have actually promoted steadiness in the labor industry. Instead, given the vulnerability of the labor industry that had always existed, it tends to grow more over time. Many agricultural laborers shift hastily towards the construction industry in anticipation of steadier and/or additional income. The big fishes started hiring people from remote villages in the promise of a better lifestyle. However, once brought to the city, workers were left to fend for themselves and provided almost no training, education or safety mechanisms to protect themselves or their families.

Before 1996, there were not many legislations sufficient to mitigate the inherent risk laborers were prone to. To provide for more safety and increase the effectiveness of employability structures and the benefits, two additional central acts came into being – the Building and Other Constructions Workers (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act (popularly known as the BOCW Act) and the Building and Other Constructions Workers Welfare Cess Act.

The BOCW Act is a social welfare legislation that aims to benefit workers engaged in building and construction activities across the country. However, the prosperous intentions of the act directed toward the BOC workers fail to meet their desired destinies on the ground for multiple reasons. Based on my on ground observations in the district of Puri, Odisha, I point out to a few issues that arise and possible recommendations to address them.

Fundamentally, the guidelines of the act are left loose and ambiguous whilst explaining the registration of the worker. With no clarity as to whatsoever and whosoever would authenticate the worker as a bonafide worker, the worker faces problems in the registration process. Hence, Primarily, the major factor that fails to make the intent of the act successful is the circumstantial elements that exploit the ambiguity of the act. The enrolment process of BOC Workers is dominated by a nexus of trade unions, consequently producing many loopholes and challenges in its implementation. The trade unions have been found to exploit the lack of knowledge of the BOC workers in many instances. Since the role of trade unions is not limited to just a one-time interaction but extends till the very last stage of BOC workers’ membership in the schemes, it’s vital to acknowledge the problems related to them.

The trade unions, which mobilizes and unites the labor force in the state also have the authority to authenticate the workers as a bonafide worker. This creates space for mala fide practises in an area that can easily be regulated. Trade unions often also charge discriminatory prices for naive workers. The registration amount charged is sometimes up to 200 times more than the actual registration charge of Rs. 20. The same
practise is often repeated when it comes to the annual renewal of registration.

Secondly, it is observed that a worker usually completes its 90 days of work by working in different sites and thus gets enrolled in different trade unions tied to respective contractors. No trade union then has the capacity to authenticate or guarantee the worker’s full 90 days of work, leading to workers missing out on registration benefits. To circumvent this, workers are expected to provide full details and affidavits mentioning their previous work experience – a daunting task to say the least. Most often, therefore, they prefer to remain undocumented. This is a process that needs to be looked over by the Labor Offices in order to ensure that registration rates don’t fall, and every worker is documented.   

The BOCW Act also provides cash transfers for buying safety kits, etc. However, To counter deaths under easily avoidable circumstances, it is also suggested that the government distributes safety kits and equipment instead succumbing to cash transfers, which can easily be used for other things.

Additionally, I believe that extending maternity benefits towards wives of workers and not just workers themselves can act as a strong incentive.  As per the recent reports not even 40% of the actual BOCWs have been registered under the act. In the Puri district itself, only 65,000 BOCWs have been registered, showing that there exists a need to revise existing structures in order to even aim at a hundred percent coverage of the scheme.

Aastha Narang is currently working with Swaniti as a SPARC Associate to Hon. Lok Sabha MP of Puri, Odisha – Mr. Pinaki Misra.