Why Women Construction Workers Will Continue to Deliver by the Roadside

Interests of women workers in the construction sector have not been safeguarded and with the State failing to do it duty, we will continue to see images of children of construction workers tied to poles and not inside schools or crèches.

New Delhi: Several months ago, the photo of a child tied at a construction site, while her mother worked nearby, resonated with the Indian middle class, elite bureaucracy and politicians. Suddenly, everyone around seemed to wake up and notice the migrant men and women toiling away at construction sites in metros. There were several articles in print, on web and public debates on television channels looking to fix things in favour of women workers and their children at worksites. It seemed that finally, the fate of women workers in construction sites would change for the better.

That wave generated interest in looking at possible facilities for women workers in the sector at large and pushed the agenda for demand of child care facilities in and around construction sites. However, what the enthusiasm did not probe was whether the interests of these women workers are safeguarded by any legislation or not. And if they are, to what extent they have been implemented.

Legislations and aftermath

Sheela Devi is one of the many construction workers who migrated to Delhi in the late ’80s and witnessed the huge civil society uproar for legislative protection of construction workers. She remembers herself as a 20-year-old participating in many such rallies and demanding facilities such as pension and education for her children. She shares how joyous they were when they learned of the government declaration, that by law, construction workers (including women like her) would be getting social security benefits.

In the mid-90s, after a decade of civil society and union struggles, two very progressive pieces of legislations came forth – The Building and Other Construction Workers (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1996 and the Building and Other Construction Workers Cess Act, 1996. They first protected the interest of workers by ensuring formation of a tripartite Welfare Board and they later provided for levy and collection of cess on the cost of construction incurred by an employer and the funds collected were mandated to be used for the benefit of workers. Interestingly, although the Act came into being in the year 1996, it took several years for states to formulate rules and initiate its implementation on the ground.

In fact, it took seven years for the Construction Workers Welfare Board to become functional (it came into being in late 2002). Of the many workers who perhaps had to face repercussions because the delay, Sheela was certainly one of them. By the time the Board began functioning, her firstborn had already dropped out of school and was a helping hand at worksite.

The role of this Board was to protect interests of the workers and to monitor that various social security provisions for the workers including entitlements such as maternity benefit, pension, education loan, marriage allowance, death benefit etc were being provided. A worker needs to be a registered member of a construction workers union to avail the benefits collected under the Building and Other Construction Welfare Trust.

In addition to the delay, it was also the cumbersome processes of registering in unions and documenting to claim benefits discouraged many women from going to the Board, explains Sheela.

In the last two decades, massive construction activites in cities have led to an increase in the number of construction workers in India and some estimates say that more than 41 million people are employed in this sector, with Delhi alone housing more than one million workers, out of which nearly one fourth are women. However, the women workers are confined to menial roles of cleaning building sites, carrying gravel, mortar and water and accordingly, lowly compensated. Thus, ironically, the promulgation of legislations and welfare schemes which was seen to be more in interest of women construction workers failed to reach out to them.

Silver lining and harsh reality

Over the years the cess collected under the Building and Other Construction Workers Cess Act, 1996 in Delhi has soared to more than Rs 2,600 crore which is sufficient to meet welfare needs of all workers including women workers. But in reality the status is dismal.

Successive droughts in Bundelkhand led Meena and her husband to migrate to Delhi in 2011 and soon, they were pushed into construction work. For years, they weren’t aware of the existence of any legislation providing social security. Later on, even though they registered with a union, they were unable to claim any benefit as they failed to pay the registration fee for the union over successive years. A recent data released by the Board (as on December 31, 2017) states that only Rs 1,414 crore has so far been spent on welfare of workers. And out of 5,18,184 registered workers, only 2,16,210 workers (41%) have received some kind of benefit.

A closer look at the beneficiaries and one realises that women in construction work are most deprived when it came to accessing entitlements. Shanti Devi, a construction worker, came to Delhi during the Commonwealth Games construction boom in 2010. Soon, she delivered at a local private hospital. She and her husband are still repaying the loan that was taken for medical expenses during her pregnancy and delivery. Similarly, there are several other women construction workers who have not even heard about maternity benefit scheme.  

It doesn’t come as a surprise then, that in the last ten years, only 1,552 women construction workers have availed maternity benefits under the Act in Delhi. Given that most women in the construction sector are in the reproductive age group, these numbers reflect the rather poor implementation of welfare schemes meant for women in the sector.

The status of other vulnerable categories such as disabled and senior workers is equally poor with only two persons of disability getting pension and only 194 workers getting old age pension in last ten years.

Another shocking status is of the outreach of scholarship support scheme of education to children of construction workers in Delhi which has reached  only 1,927 beneficiaries. When one asks the group of construction workers about this scheme, the response is mockingly harsh – “If our children get into schools, who will construct ‘houses of ‘babus’. We have resigned to our fate”.

Clearly, these figures explain that while the State didn’t fail its citizens in providing legislative protection, it is those manning the posts of implementation who have failed to do their due. And that is why we will continue to see images of children of construction workers tied to poles and not inside schools or crèches and women in construction work will continue to have unsafe deliveries by the road side.

(The figures quoted are from government files.)

(With inputs from Thaneshwar Dyal, activist working for construction workers.)

Smita Khanijow is a gender rights activist and works with ActionAid India in Delhi