Case studies

A fair deal for labourers

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Legislation passed in 1996 seeks to provide social security for construction workers, but there have been obstacles to its implementation. PACS and partner Nirmana are working in the Lucknow district of Uttar Pradesh in northern India, to register construction workers with the State Construction Workers Welfare Board and enable them to receive benefits under its various schemes.

Challenging conditions

In village Kalli Paschim, in Sarojini block of Lucknow district, Uttar Pradesh, dozens of construction workers are gathered in a stiflingly humid tin shed, which doubles as a school in the mornings.

The drizzle outside has turned the ground into mush, making walking perilous. Men sit in one corner of the large semi-open shed, talking loudly as they mop their brows; women sit in another corner chatting among themselves, keeping a sharp eye on their children.

Dharmendra, age 26, who works as a construction labourer, proudly shows his identity card issued by the Department of Labour, Government of Uttar Pradesh, and the State Building And Other Construction Workers’ Welfare Board, which entitles him to benefits he never dreamed of. 

‘I have been working since childhood at construction sites with my parents,' he says. 'I have never seen them get any benefit in their lifetime, and I never thought I would, either. I was just happy to get my daily wages. Funds for expenses or emergencies, household appliances, bicycles and so on were luxuries. If, one day, I could save money, maybe I could think of buying something. But that seemed like a distant dream, a dream I am sure my parents would also have dreamt as they lived out their lives in poverty and squalor. But now, when people say dreams rarely come true, I give a silent laugh: for me, they actually have!’

Hari Lal, 25, is squatting by the Lucknow Road, waiting to get work. He is looking for his friend Bansi to join him so he can begin negotiating with potential contractors, business owners and individuals who may need labourers like him. ‘They usually hunt for a bargain and try to get us at the cheapest rates; sometimes, I have to lower my demands in case no-one is interested in hiring me,’ he says. 

Hari entered the labour market very early in life when he realised his village had precious little to offer, in terms of employment. ‘Our agricultural income is unpredictable: sometimes, there is the untimely monsoon, or drought, or a sudden fall in the price of agricultural commodities, or an unexpected rise in the price of seeds. Who can live like this?’ he asks, his eyes focused on the dalal (middleman) alighting from an SUV and coming towards him.

Then there’s Sanjeev Lal, 25, who works as a construction labourer in Lucknow city. ‘I worked on the land of an “upper caste”, looking after the crops and cattle and doing odd jobs as the landlord pleased,’ he explains. ‘I knew there was no getting away from this work if I got into the debt of the landowner, so I decided to move from my village and join the ranks of thousands of labourers like me. But there is a difference now: I have been registered by the State Building And Other Construction Workers’ Welfare Board and now enjoy benefits that are due to me as a construction labourer: when I became a father, I got Rs. 8,000 in two installments as paternity benefit. I have also been given a solar light, a cycle, Rs. 1,000 for buying the tools of my trade (a spade, shovel and so on). All this was paid to me by cheque, which I paid into my account. Do you think I would have got a fraction of this in my village? I would have still been slogging away 17 hours a day, for Rs. 50 a day.’

Addressing a lack of benefits and pensions

National Coordinator for PACS partner Nirmana, Sanjeev Kumar explains that, after 12 years of sustained campaigning, two acts for the construction workers were passed by parliament in 1996. These were the Building and Other Construction Workers (Regulation of Employment & Conditions of Service) Act, 1996 and The Building and Other Construction Workers Welfare Cess Act, 1996. It took another two years of effort to get the Central Rules notified on 26th March 1998.

He says: ‘We wanted regulation of employment and wages through the boards but that has not been accepted, while we are fighting for compulsory registration of workers and employers at least. There have been many problems with implementation. For example, many states are dragging their feet about formation of welfare boards under the Central Act. 

‘The National Campaign Committee, headed by Justice VR Krishna Ayer (a retired judge for the Supreme Court of India) has filed public interest litigation (PIL) in the Supreme Court on the subject. In fact, even where boards have been formed, the welfare cess has been collected in crores, which are vested with these state boards but not spent on registered workers. Again, the safety rules are the worst implemented, resulting in fatalities increasing with fewer workers getting compensation or relief from boards.’

Sanjeev Kumar argues that the campaign needs an assurance from central government of a time limit by which all state governments must implement the 1996 Acts in full. ‘At field level, we need strong state-level committees to follow up the implementation of the 1996 Acts in the state, with active community-based organisations of construction workers to ensure quick registration of construction workers as beneficiaries. This is where our partnership with PACS is paying dividends,’ he says. 

Currently, most construction workers toil under a system of contracts and sub-contracts, starting work at the age of 10 and continuing past the age of 70 with no terminal benefits or pension. They are recruited either from marketplaces or directly from slums and villages or brought from rural areas and housed on big sites. Indebtedness and long periods of illness are commonplace. These workers are invisible on government records, not paid minimum wages, even on government sites, exploited, and bonded to big contractors. In quarries, kilns and construction sites, child labour does not raise any eyebrows, even though banned by law. 

Pregnant women work hard until the day of their delivery, often bringing their babies bundled in old clothes, exposed to hazards of the worksite and toddlers play in the sand and cement dust. Accidents are an everyday occurrence, with little in the way of emergency medical treatment or compensation. Asthma, tuberculosis and respiratory problems are commonplace, alongside exhaustion and pain. These people are left to fend for themselves – to live on the roadside or in slums, often victims of eviction and slum fires. 

Because of this, the National Campaign Committee for Central Legislation on Construction Labour has suggested that, in the absence of a sense of responsibility on the part of employers and contractors towards labourers’ welfare, a participatory, tripartite mechanism to pin down responsibility for the protection and social security for labourers should be created. 
However, the above Act, while containing 'Regulation of Employment' in its title, has  no provision for regulating employment. There is only the provision for registering employers and ‘beneficiaries’. 

Sustainable livelihoods

The PACS theme of ensuring sustainable livelihoods focuses on non-discriminatory access to work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), which guarantees rural households 100 days of paid work every year doing unskilled manual labour, and participation of community-based organisations in MGNREGA committees for inclusive implementation of the scheme. 

This dovetails with Nirmana’s ongoing campaign around the Building and Other Construction Workers (Regulation of Employment and Condition of Services) Act, since Nirmana considers MGNREGA workers to be construction workers; most are employed on construction sites for digging ponds, roads and so on. The Government of India has also instructed that all those who have worked for a minimum of 50 days under the scheme should be registered under the board. Thus, Nirmana’s partnership with PACS is now even more meaningful.

Nirmana State Coordinator Prince Verma says: ‘Our team conducted a community-level survey with the involvement of women and youth leaders. Around 270 CBOs were formed at various levels – village, panchayat, block, district and state – for campaigning on PACS themes. Meetings were organised at block and district level, where 30-50 persons participated. Gram panchayat-level campaigns were held to inform unorganised labourers and domestic workers about their rights and entitlements and the need for collective action. In the campaign, we focused on MGNREGA, domestic and construction workers in particular for their participation. 

‘We also undertook a registration drive for construction and MGNREGA workers for their registration with the Labour Welfare board for social security schemes with PACS,’ he continues. ‘We organised registration drives in villages, gram panchayats and at the block level for job cards under MGNREGA, demanding work and registration at the district offices of State Building and Other Construction Workers’ Welfare Board. All construction workers and MGNREGA workers who had worked more than 50 days under MGNREGA were registered with the State Construction Workers Welfare Board and were thus entitled to benefits under its various schemes. In all, 2,500 such workers were registered, of whom 1,500 are from Lucknow alone.’

Because the National Campaign Committee for Central Legislation on Construction Labour (NCC-CL) has been campaigning for comprehensive central legislation to provide security and labour welfare to construction and MGNREGA workers, social security was also included in our campaign. The target of our NCC-CL campaign is speedy implementation of the two pieces of legislation enacted in 1996, plus amendments to central rules to make them comprehensive.’

Sanjeev Kumar adds: ‘Orientation programmes were conducted at panchayat and block level for CBO members engaged in construction/MGNREGA work to ensure their participation in decision-making process. The purpose of orientation was to make them aware of the Panchayati Raj Insitutions (PRIs) and explain their role in working with their PRIs to ensure the welfare of their communities. They were also guided in how to make representation to various PRI bodies on issues such as health, education and village development. At block level, this saw enthusiastic participation by women group leaders, construction workers and MGNREGA workers - the main stakeholders of this programme. The pradhans and block-level functionaries also participated in the orientation process.’ 

This work by Nirmana and PACS is why construction worker Dharmendra is now the proud owner of a cycle, solar light (which also includes solar panel, batteries and light fittings); his friend Sanjay has received a cycle and his identification card and documents, while Laxman, 46, has received a cycle and solar light.

Sohanlal, another beneficiary, says: ‘I received a cycle and solar light. But I keep reading about starvation deaths, farmer-weaver-potter suicides, invisible retrenchments and displacements due to various policies. It has made rich get richer and poor become poorer. At least now, our fight for self-respect and social justice and for comprehensive legal protection has borne fruit. While I may be satisfied, there are many like me who still need to be reached. Let us not forget them.’

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