The exploitation of migrant construction workers has grown alongside the expansion of the industry. It's time the government got serious about upholding the law.

A recent report in The Hindu on the violation of labour laws at a massive construction site belonging to the Army Welfare Housing Organisation in Bangalore raises yet again the repeated neglect of regulations relating to the employment and welfare of workers by construction companies in India.

For those who missed the story, the company concerned was found paying migrant workers Rs.50 per week as wages, as against the promised Rs.157 per day. This openly flouted the provisions of the Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act (1979), the Building and Other Construction Workers' Act and the Minimum Wages Act (1948). This shocking story of exploitation in India's IT capital became public only when a handful of workers from Chhattisgarh managed to escape from the work site and were put in touch with a labour union which in turn produced the emaciated and frightened workers before the media for their testimony.

Violations

The contract in this case had been awarded to a company, B.L. Kashyap and Sons Ltd., that had only a year ago (July 29, 2011) been found guilty of evasion of Provident Fund payments to workers by the Employees' Provident Fund Organisation (EPFO) of India. A fine of Rs.593 crore was levied on the company after confirmation of forgery by the Central Finger Print Bureau of the National Crime Records Bureau. Interestingly, following the order, the Builders Association and 26 other establishments filed a case in the Delhi High Court against the EPFO, challenging their obligations regarding payment of Provident Fund to casual workers employed at construction sites. The case is currently on.

Rights under the law

Construction workers in India are guaranteed certain forms of protection and rights under a broad canvas of labour laws. These include the right to minimum wages, overtime payments, weekly offs, specific allowances in case of migrant workers, housing and other social security benefits. As employers, construction companies are legally responsible for providing protection to workers. In reality, the compulsions on them to follow the rules are far and few. Under existing labour laws, the penalties imposed for the non-execution of responsibilities like maintenance of proper muster roll, non-payment of minimum wages, etc. are relatively miniscule — ranging between Rs.500-Rs.2,000 — and not much of a deterrent for erring companies. Given this, the attempts made by the EPFO to rely on forensic sciences to determine the extent of criminal misdeed, are indeed commendable.

Constituting an important segment of the overall services industry (seven per cent of total GDP), and recording an annual growth of over 10 per cent over the last five years, the construction industry is one of the biggest employers of labour in India. According to the Planning Commission's XI-Plan document, employment in the construction sector in India has witnessed a steady increase from 14.6 million in 1995 to nearly 31.5 million in 2005. It is interesting to note that while the share of skilled professionals in the business has gone down from 15.3 per cent in 1995 to 10.5 per cent in 2005, the relative proportion of unskilled personnel has registered a significant increase from 73 per cent in 1995 to 82.4 per cent in 2005. For an industry growing rapidly, with a high dependence on unskilled manpower, it is paradoxical that both the government and the industry have not yet shown any inclination of devising a foolproof system that places sufficient checks on the way the construction industry regulates or conducts itself. This aspect of neglect is most visible in the way government agencies have handled issues concerning the welfare of workers, especially migrants in the construction industry.

Migrant workers

Under the provisions of this Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act (1979), which was explicitly enacted to prevent migrant workers from being exploited, labour contractors are required to obtain a licence from the government concerned authorising them to recruit and employ migrant labour from one State to another. Legally, any establishment employing more than five inter-State migrant workmen is required to register under the provisions of the Act. However, while the vast majority of those employed in construction activities constitute migrants, this Act is rarely invoked. The national level data provided in the 23rd Report of the Standing Committee on Labour (December 2011) shows the number of licensed contractors or registered establishments as exceptionally low. From data gathered from 22 States, only 285 licensed contractors and 240 registered establishments were recorded as employing migrant labour. For a country of the size of India, this is definitely an under-reported statistic.

Migrant workers in general constitute a vulnerable social category. With little capacity to bargain for their constitutional rights as workers, they are forced to work and live under conditions that are practically subhuman. Makeshift tents housing migrant families are a common sight in almost all big cities.

During the course of a Public Interest Litigation filed by the People's Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR) in January 2010, on the violation of workers' rights at the Commonwealth Games construction sites, a Delhi High Court-appointed Monitoring Committee submitted a report which documented the almost abysmal conditions in which the workers were forced to work and live at various sites. Long working hours with no extra payments for overtime and non-payment of minimum wages were widely reported. In the course of the hearings, approximately 140 deaths of workers at construction sites were reported. Yet, government agencies turned a blind eye. Even the Shunglu committee that was constituted to look into allegations of corruption, failed to include the case of labour law violations despite repeated requests within its larger mandate of looking at the financial improprieties conducted in the course of the Commonwealth Games.

The contractor

The construction industry — even in its globalised avatar — relies on archaic systems of operation, such as the use of contractors for the supply of labour. The Contractor Raj, if one may call it, was a prevalent feature of the colonial mode of labour recruitment and production. The Royal Commission on Labour in 1929 actually recommended the abolition of the institution of the contractor. In 1970, India passed the Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act. However, this institution not only continues, but has actually deepened with the boom in the construction industry as contractors and sub-contractors are employed even in small projects. This multiple chain of operations creates its own problems of regulation. While there is little doubt that globalisation has contributed to increased business opportunities for the construction industry, things have not improved for the workers, who constitute the life and soul of the industry. The Bangalore episode has once again shown the extent of exploitation that still exists.

Getting construction companies to follow the law of the land regarding fulfilment of basic rights related to employment, safety and welfare of workers still seems a distant dream. The government, despite repeated reminders, seems to be looking away.

(Moushumi Basu is an Associate Professor at the School of International Studies, JNU, and member of PUDR.)

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