B. Monalisa (32) works for almost 10 hours every day at a construction project on Greams Road, digging earth, and then carrying the mud for the rest of the day. Hailing from a village near Cuttack, she has been doing this for 20 years, while her husband works as a mason on Rajiv Gandhi Salai.
Amidst all the noise, her four-month-old daughter lies asleep on a narrow plank nearby. “I have sent my other children back to our village. I have to bring her along since there is no one to look after her,” she says.
While high-rise buildings and flyovers might be symbols of a new economy, the condition of the construction labourers working on them reveals that they are trapped in low-paid, insecure working conditions, often in bonded labour. The ones at the receiving end are women and children.
Almost three lakh migrant labourers, mostly natives of Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, Bihar and West Bengal, estimated to be working in different parts of the city are either housed by contractors on site, or live in rented huts in the vicinity. “Many of them are not even paid the minimum wages. Although protective legislation for migrants exists, it is never implemented,” says Geeta Ramakrishnan, president, Unorganised Workers' Federation.
Getting registered under the Welfare Board according to the new system that involves a lot of verification prevents them from availing themselves of benefits, she adds. “Since it is a male-dominated profession, women are often dissuaded from learning masonry, painting or other specialised trades,” she says. Women labourers, however, point out that their husbands often impose such restrictions on them so that they [the women] remain dependent. Considered only helpers, but made to do all tasks such as scaffolding, carrying bricks and water, and earth work, the women are paid much lesser than men.
Since a majority of them are of the child-bearing age, it is common for them to work right through a pregnancy. Sridevi M. a labourer from Andhra Pradesh at Anna Salai, recalls how two of her infants died in Chennai due to lack of health care services. “Nursing the baby is very difficult, when it is a full day work,” she says.
There is a greater incidence of accidents and the victims are never compensated or rehabilitated. Often the whole family is sent back to the village, along with the body to avoid complications,” Ms. Ramakrishnan adds.
Most women workers say they had to work long hours for paltry sums and suffered from lack of rest, and harassment. Displaced female workers especially from Semmencheri and Kannagi Nagar face assaults by those who provide them electricity and water, and the migrant ones on the outskirts have unending tales of woes of living in tents with no sanitation or safety. These are often powerful persons in the locality. “There is no door to our tents, children have to stay back to guard our belongings,” says Rajeshri P., a migrant worker from Bihar.
Many women say shifting to domestic work or housekeeping work in companies is much better. “But companies take in only young, fairly educated girls who know to handle gadgets,” says Farha .K (46).