For the preparation of the Commonwealth Games 2010, around Rs 17,400 crore have been spent on Delhi by the government over the past three years. The over-used word deployed by public leaders and officials to describe the city, which they hope will emerge from these exertions, is ‘world-class’. But forgotten are the men and women whose toil will make this ‘world-class’ city possible. At its peak in 2008-09, an estimated 100,000 workers congregated in Delhi from several of India’s proverbial backwaters: Bihar, Jharkhand, eastern Uttar Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.
Studies by the Commonwealth Games: Citizens for Workers, Women and Children (CWG-CWC) and People’s Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR) testify to widespread violation of workers’ legal rights. The government awards tenders of its mega projects to major international companies that, in turn, sub-contract them to large national building agencies. These, in turn, sub-contract to smaller contractors, who typically depend on labour contractors. These local contractors recruit mostly impoverished young men to work for short periods and at low wages. The companies prefer to employ migrant workers over local workers to safeguard against the workers claiming their legal rights.
We visited many unkempt labour camps and found workers and their families surviving mostly in makeshift homes. They spoke to us about the freezing winter cold and unbearable summer heat against which these temporary hutments provide no protection. Many are packed into dormitories, which are claustrophobic in the heat. An average 114 people use a single toilet. There’s no drainage. Flies, mosquitoes and snakes are in abundance. Many sites have no crèches and even less run schools. No sites had health posts run by doctors.
It would cost contractors less than 1 per cent of the project costs to fulfil their legal obligation of providing a decent camp to workers and their families. But they are unwilling to invest, and no government official compels them to abide by the law of the land.
Violation of the law was also found at work-sites. Workers often lacked even the elementary safety equipment like helmets, shoes and masks. The minimum wages prescribed by the law is Rs 151 per day for unskilled workers. But they were being paid an average of Rs 114 per day. Many work extra hours but almost none reported receiving double wage payment as prescribed by the law.
The law requires construction workers and inter-state migrant workers to be registered for them to be eligible for social security and other benefits. But few are actually registered. In the event of an accident, injury, fatality or any other claim, it becomes easy for employers to escape their legal responsibilities.
The nature of construction work is that it’s short-term. So workers and their families are unprotected. To remedy this, the Building and Other Construction Workers’ Act was passed in 1996. It requires all workers to be registered, and imposes a cess on employers. The cess is to enable workers to receive scholarships for their children; insurance against health and in the case of accidents or deaths; retirement and disability pensions; and house-building loans.
In Delhi, cess worth Rs 350 crore has been collected from builders. But out of the estimated 8 lakh construction workers in the city, only around 2,000 are actually found on live registers. It’s incredible that until January 2010, only one worker had received an accident claim from this cess, and 100 children had received scholarships. Three crèches have been established.
Large sums of money are available with the Delhi government for the welfare of construction workers and their families. But no political leader or government official seems interested in enabling the workers to lead more secured and dignified lives. The fact that the law obliges them to do so seems irrelevant to those who are charged with enforcing the law of the land.
Harsh Mander is Director, Centre for Equity Studies
The views expressed by the author are personal