Nearly one crore in strength, the labourers working in Tamil Nadu’s construction industry, remain grossly under represented, according to K. Suresh, district secretary, Tamil Nadu All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) Construction Workers Union.

Claiming that only 25 lakh from the crore labourers are presently registered with Tamil Nadu Construction Labourers Welfare Board, Mr. Suresh feels there is a serious gap between the government schemes for the unorganised sector and their actual beneficiaries.

“About two months ago our office received a circular from the State labour ministry that implied the removal of trade and labour unions from the equation,” he says. If enforced, he warns, it will only widen the gap and prevent scores of daily-wage labourers from being adequately represented.

Sops from the state

Every day, thousands of construction labourers pour into the city from surrounding areas like Manapparai, Vyyampatti, Viralimalai, Kovilpatti, Nanmagalam, Tiruverumbur, Lalgudi and Musiri among others. Mostly uneducated and unsure of finding work every day, a majority of this floating population is yet to benefit from the various government welfare schemes.

“There are schemes that offer financial assistance in times of death (natural or accident), marriage, pregnancy and education of their children,” says Mr. Suresh, who adds that his union has been actively campaigning for revision of the sums allotted for each occasion.

For instance, the AITUC has demanded that the compensations for natural death (presently Rs.17,000) and death due to accident (presently Rs.1 lakh) be raised to Rs.3 lakh and Rs.5 lakh respectively; increase marriage benefits to Rs.25,000 from the present Rs.5,000 (for female child) and Rs.3,000 (for male child); reduce pensionable age to 50 for women and 55 for men, apart from increasing the pension to Rs.3,000 from Rs.1,000 per month; and provide educational scholarships to students from standard I among other demands.

Answers from within

While the Central government has stipulated that one per cent from the project’s construction cost must be levied by the respective State governments to fund various welfare schemes for unorganised labourers, not all States follow it , alleges Mr. Suresh. “The Tamil Nadu government levies just 0.3 per cent from the construction projects within its boundaries, whereas neighbouring Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka levy one per cent,” he says. If this levy is revised, he feels there will be enough funds with the board to meet all their demands.

P. Durairaj, a mason, feels government construction projects must remove contractors from the equation and employ labourers directly. “Only that can ensure some amount of job security for us and help us redress our issues,” he says.

Mr. Durairaj says there are around 48 divisions of labour doing jobs like sand lifting, stone breaking, brick laying, electrical wiring, painting, AC fitting, plumbing, and even decorating.

“If there are no contractors involved, then the government can directly recruit from the available pool of labourers, thereby considerably reducing project costs,” he says.

While long projects like educational institutions and townships hire the same labourers every day, most of them dismiss it as illusion.

“Though I have been working at a college site for nearly seven years now, I will not be allowed to enter the site if I am not inside by 8.30 am,” says Nallamma from Kodumbalur Chattram. With a highly erratic transport system connecting their villages to Tiruchi, she says many of them return home empty-handed and hope to land a job the next day.