Shortage of skilled labour is the main reason
N. Desingu is a helper in the construction industry. He is paid Rs.350 a day as wages. Apart from this, he gets travel charges and two cups of tea a day from his contractor. “Until last year I was earning Rs.250, but as prices have shot up and my elder son is joining college this year and I asked for a hike and the contractor agreed to give one. I also work overtime so that I can send a considerable amount to my family in Vandavasi,” he said.
Many labourers such as Mr. Desingu travel home from Chennai every week to meet their families and review ongoing agricultural work in their farmland. If there is work to be done on the farm, workers such as him and his co-worker Settu (24) stay back at home and do not come for work at the construction site. “When labourers take a break, it is a headache for contractors. We either scout for labour or agree to pay more to our own men, which is one factor that hikes up rates in the industry,” said P.Karunakaran, a building contractor from Poonamallee.
L.Moorthi, former Chairman of the Tamil Nadu unit of the Builders Association of India, said that the number of people coming from the villages to work in the construction industry has gone down. “Women prefer to work in house-keeping in MNCs. The boys too prefer to take up jobs that pay less as cable TV operators or as courier delivery personnel. Also there is pay parity in the villages and people no longer need to come to the city to earn.”
Mr. Settu said the spiralling costs of essential commodities forced him to work overtime. “I need to send money to my mother in our village. I work on Sundays, too. When the contractor gets big projects and has a deadline to meet, we work day and night continuously for days together, without a break.”
Over the last two years the percentage of labour costs in the construction industry has gone up. Mr. Moorthi said that in multi-storeyed buildings labour charge takes up 20 per cent of the total cost. In small constructions labour costs can go upto 30 to 40 per cent and if old houses are repaired or maintenance works are taken up, it goes upto as much as 125 per cent. “This shortage is expected to only get acute as the wards of the masons and labourers are getting educated and not many people are choosing mason or carpentry in ITI courses,” he said. The shortage of skilled labour coupled with the cost of labour is driving many contractors to think twice before taking up construction work. Of the labourers available for construction, sources in the industry say that those from Bihar and Andhra Pradesh constitute around 90 per cent.