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Helps, car cleaners, cooks turn labourers as housing societies shun them

By Soumya Pillai and Ashish Mishra, New Delhi
UPDATED ON MAY 30, 2020 11:27 PM IST

It is 10am on Saturday and 33-year-old Gayatri Devi is in a queue with over two dozen men and women to collect her safety gear from the contractor at a west Delhi construction site. She is new to the site. Until the lockdown, her mornings were spent in sweeping, mopping and washing utensils at two households, where she worked as domestic help. But today will be a first --- of lifting bricks and carrying loads at the construction site.

“I used to do the household chores in four houses in Paschim Vihar. From March 17, my employers asked me not to come to work because of the coronavirus scare. I called them all on May 1, asking if I could resume work but none of them allowed me back. Since then, I have lost the job at one house and the other three employers are either evading my calls or asking me to wait for some more weeks,” Devi said.

Many like Devi, who were earlier employed as house helps, cooks, car cleaners, gardeners and hawkers, have lost their livelihoods in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic and are now turning up at construction sites across the city looking for work.

Many of them were unable to return to their villages in other states -- the interstate bus and train services have only started recently -- and are desperate for work.

Ram Kishore, used to wash cars in Janakpuri, is now working as a labourer at another site. “I have never worked as a labourer, but I was running out of money and finally managed to find this job. It has just been two days but the contractor has agreed to pay me a week’s wages in advance, which will help me sail through for some time. People stopped stepping out and gated colonies were not allowing us to enter to resume our work. Till when can we hang on to the hope that they will call us back? We need something to survive,” he said.

A senior PWD official said the a lot of first-time workers are being engaged at different project sites, but their work is limited to unskilled labour only. “Some of the experienced labour hands have returned to their home towns after Shramik Special trains were started. So there remains a scarcity of workforce. The inexperienced workers are limited to performing unskilled work such as moving construction materials from one place to another and digging work, among others,” the official said, requesting anonymity.

Contractors with the public works department (PWD) and Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC) confirmed many first-timers have joined their workforce as unskilled labourers. These people are being recruited for lifting and transferring construction material and cleaning the site and are paid around 500 to 600 a day. The contractors say they are also benefitting from these new recruits as they are filling up for labourers who have left for their home towns.

“We had a requirement of 150 labourers in March, but the work was stopped after the lockdown. Even though we are providing in-situ living arrangements for labourers, the first batch of 28 workers left the site in the second week of April and now after the government started trains to neighbouring states, 79 more have left,” Prashant Prajapati, a contractor with the DMRC, said.

After Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the a nationwide lockdown starting March 25, to control the spread of the infectious Covid-19, the national capital saw a mass exodus of migrant workers who wanted to return to their home towns. With factories and small scale industries shut, a large majority of these workers were jobless overnight.

While in the initial days, many started walking to their native places, in the absence of all other modes of transport, over the last two weeks, the state governments of Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana are arranging for buses to ferry natives home. The resumption of train services has also helped migrant workers leave Delhi.

A contractor who works with the PWD said \many people who had no experience of working at a construction site have joined the workforce in the last one week at different construction projects such as Barapullah phase-3 elevated corridor, tunnel road project near Pragati Maidan, Shastri Park and Seelampur flyover project among others.

“There is a shortage of labour in the market hence anyone who is willing to work is welcome. It is hard to arrange for labourers these days. Most of those working at construction sites are migrant labourers from UP, Bihar, Odisha, Jharkhand and Madhya Pradesh. Some of them had already gone even before the lockdown happened while many left during exodus in April and later in May after relaxations were given,” the contractor, who wished not to be named, said.

He added that this workforce is also temporary. They will return to their original work places once things get back to normal.

The PWD is helming some of important projects such as construction of 1.2-km-long tunnel between Purana Qila road near Mathura Road and the Ring Road, which is part of ITPO Pragati Maidan Redevelopment Project; Barapullah phase-3 elevated corridor; Ashram underpass; flyovers at Seelampur and Shastri Park; and Benito-Juarez Road underpass in south Delhi. The deadline and the cost of the projects has already been extended and increased because of the lockdown.

The Delhi Metro on the other hand, has six construction sites across the city. This includes the phase-4 projects as well as the Airport Express Line expansion in Dwarka. PWD’s engineer-in-chief PK Vats said, “Construction work has been resumed at different project sites and all the guidelines are being followed. There is an issue of labourers but it is being managed.”

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