No country for construction workers: Two decades after first legislation, fight for compensation and identification goes on

In early October, four young men lost their lives at a private real estate firm BPTP’s 18-storey Capital City. A tractor trolley carrying sand hit the shuttering material, the iron fixture erected along the length of the building during construction, and it collapsed.

Along with the driver of the tractor, the 28-year-old Naushad, the other deceased were identified as Karan and Vijaypal, both 27 years old, and Ramvijay, who was all of 19. The senior superintendent of Police in the area, Ajay Pal Sharma, had told the press that the police was probing the matter and after that, due compensation would be given to the families of the victims as per the Wages Act.

Reportedly, the workers were wearing helmets but the safety harness was missing from the shuttering. This is neither the first incident of its kind nor is it the last. Lack of consolidated data on construction worker deaths is one of the reasons why the country is still unaware of how mainstream this problem is.

“We at the Bandhkam Mazdoor Sangathan collect data through RTIs, at the zone, district and state levels,” said Vipul Pandya, who fights for the rights of people directly or indirectly engaged in construction work. He shared that the compiled data of 2018 suggests that 60,000 accidents still take place across construction sites in India. The most common causes, constituting nearly 40 percent of the deaths, are workers being struck by falling objects like mobile construction equipment.

He added that the second-most common reason for fatal accidents is workers falling through openings, or because of collapse of scaffolding. Other reasons include electric shocks caused by damaged cables, with either no earthing or no use of 3 pin plug/socket, the handiwork of non-qualified electricians.

Image courtesy: Deputy Director, Industrial Safety and Health, Ahmedabad

Image courtesy: Deputy Director, Industrial Safety and Health, Ahmedabad

Firstpost interacted with retired construction workers who have faced multiple near-death experiences and have lived to tell their story.

Ishwar Sharma worked as a painter for nearly four decades in New Delhi, in both posh and middle-class colonies like Rohini, Vasant Kunj and Vasant Vihar. He now lives in a colony for construction workers in Bawana. Over the years, he has witnessed denial regarding such incidents among the contractors. He shared instances of bodies of young men falling from scaffoldings and getting buried in the debris. The contractor would not bat an eyelid because disclosure would lead to dealing with the police and state authorities.

He also shared instances where the injured are taken to non-descript private hospitals in the vicinity where medico legal cases aren’t registered. In such cases, investigations by the law-enforcing agencies are essential to fix the responsibility regarding the causation of the injury or ailment. Ishwar shared that accident case summaries are made but quite often, FIRs aren’t registered.

The sub-contracting in construction weakens the implementation of Acts. For instance, the builder might be familiar with the International Labour Organisation's (ILO's) health and safety standards regarding working from a height of over five metres or working in water or working underground, but the sub-contractor dealing with the workers directly might not be aware of these standards.

“Aside from this, the problem is that smaller firms comprise 70 percent of the construction work, especially in tier 2 and tier 3 cities and in rural areas, and bigger companies who are more likely to maintain quality standards operate largely in urban centres,” said Madhukant Pathariya of Nirmaan Mazdoor Sangathan, an organisation that works for the welfare of unorganised labour in 12 districts of Maharashtra.

Under Schedule 8 of the Buildings and Other Construction Workers (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1996, is a section on safety officers to be appointed on construction sites to advise on purchasing and ensuring high quality of personal protective equipment confirming to national standards. The safety officer has to possess a recognised degree or diploma in engineering or technology.

Contrary to this, Ishwar shared that the machines used to flatten wood produce dust and owing to continuous exposure, he was diagnosed with hepatitis in 1998. He said the new machines for flattening plywood are no better. If only labour inspectors would frequent construction sites just as often as factory sites, they would be able to understand this. “If we set safety officers aside and solely consider the case of labour inspectors, we’ll realise that they are overworked. In every industrial belt in every district, there are thousands of places they need to visit under the Shops and Establishment Act. Why can’t more people be appointed in a country that complains of unemployment and the lack of jobs?” asked Pathariya.

Umesh, who has spent his entire life painting buildings, recounted stories from his work life. For a 15-foot wall, he would climb a tall ladder with a bucket of paint strapped on his waist and to paint along higher floors, he would swing on cloth held by three to four people from above. One small mistake could have cost him his life and the realisation of that fear was internalised.

Another problem is that contractors don’t issue ID cards because the possibility of accidents are high. Rakesh Katara, a 31-year-old construction worker, died in Rajpipla in south Gujarat. His family wants to fight a case in the labour court for compensation but is facing difficulties because Rakesh didn’t have a Buildings and Welfare Board ID card.

Rakesh Katara, 31, was electrocuted by a faulty machine. Image courtesy: Pallavi Rebbapragada/Firstpost

Rakesh Katara, 31, was electrocuted by a faulty machine. Image courtesy: Pallavi Rebbapragada/Firstpost

“Labour assembles around what are called ‘labour chowks’, designated public spots where contractors show up to hire them,” said Shyambir, who runs a small organisation called the Inklabi Mazdoor Kendra Sangathan. He said that construction workers are harder to unionise because of the mobility from one site to another.

In 2012, Babul Hasan, 25, from Baghpat in Uttar Pradesh, died after falling from the seventh floor of an under-construction multi-storey building being built at Behrampur Road in Gurgaon. Shyambir shared that the incident, which he witnessed closely, sparked violent protests by construction workers who pelted stones outside the company premises while shouting slogans against the contractor.

“They had blocked the main road and vandalised several vehicles. Back then, we had visited every construction site in Gurgaon and were told that at least one fatal incident had happened in each of them,” he said, adding that outrage is limited to sporadic incidents because these people are daily wage labourers and have no time or knowledge to consistently fight for their rights.

In Gujarat, the factory inspectors, who implement the Factory Act, also implement the BOCW Act. This has proven to be effective because the labour inspectors aren’t trained mechanical engineers. The post called Director, Industrial Health and Safety, under the labour department, was burdened with the inspection of over 2,000 construction sites. So, six appointments of BOCW inspectors were made. These are people solely focused on making reports, filing for compensation, keeping a check on prosecutions and checking if cases have been filed.

The last implementing authority of ILO’s standards on health and safety are the sub-contractors who are neither aware nor concerned about dilapidated and defective construction material. Image courtesy: Pallavi Rebbapragada/Firstpost

The last implementing authority of ILO’s standards on health and safety are the sub-contractors who are neither aware nor concerned about dilapidated and defective construction material. Image courtesy: Pallavi Rebbapragada/Firstpost

In the mid-1980s, a handful of social workers felt the need for a central legislation for construction workers. With assistance from Justice VR Krishna Iyer, the legislation was passed. NP Samy, who is the president of the Karnataka State Construction Workers’ Central Union, was part of the national campaign committee for construction workers for central legislation that drafted a bill and collected one million signatures.

“We had expressed in a parliament petition that the legislation in existence at the time, be it the Equal Remuneration Act or the Minimum Wages Act, doesn't address the complicated issues of construction labourers. Even the existent labour laws cater to the permanent employer-employee relations but these jobs are migrant in nature,” Samy told Firstpost.

The result of this intervention led to the passing of two key Acts: The Buildings and Other Construction Workers (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1996 and the Building and Other Construction Workers’ Welfare Cess Act, 1996. The second Act gives way for generating funds from the construction cost, not the land cost.

So, if the cost of building is more than Rs 10 lakh, the builder has to be pay one percent cess. He revealed that there are around Rs 46,000 crore in 30 state welfare boards across the country and Rs 7,500 crore in Karnataka itself. This money is to be used for the education of the children of construction workers, medical benefits, maternity benefits, housing loans and so on.

Vinod Makwana is a carpenter and has been fighting a long battle for compensation after he sustained a debilitating injury on his arm. Image courtesy: Pallavi Rebbapragada/Firstpost

Vinod Makwana is a carpenter and has been fighting a long battle for compensation after he sustained a debilitating injury on his arm. Image courtesy: Pallavi Rebbapragada/Firstpost

Subash Bhatnagar, the founder and co-ordinator of Nirmana, an organisation working for construction workers and part of the National Campaign Committee for Central Legislation on Construction Labour, said that a PIL had been filed in the Supreme Court on the failure of state governments to implement both the BOCW and the Welfare Cess Acts.

The PIL had stated, "What is equally tragic is that multiple directions issued even by the Government of India under Section 60 of the BOCW Act have been disregarded by State Governments and UTAs - and this is candidly admitted in a statement made by the learned Additional Solicitor General in this Court and also by the Union of India on affidavit." The other point the PIL raised was that under the Cess Act, more than Rs 37,400 crore have been collected for the benefit of construction workers, but only about Rs 9,500 crore have been utilised ostensibly for their benefit. "What is being done with the remaining about Rs. 28,000 crores?" the PIL stated.

In response to the PIL, a Supreme Court order came out earlier this year (12 years later). It stated that every state government and UTA shall constitute a state advisory committee that shall meet every month. Rule 20 of the Building and Other Construction Workers’ (Regulation of Employment and Condititon of Service) Central Rules, 1998 provides that the central advisory committee meet at least once in six months. If a similar procedure is followed in states, a micro-level analysis of incidents is possible.

The Ministry of Labour and Employment has proposed the issuance of a Universal Access Number for each construction worker. “Strengthening the registration machinery is a crucial step towards ensuring that benefits are reaching these people. So far, only 35 percent workers have been registered,” said Bhatnagar, highlighting that the apex court judgment has mentioned that "Monitoring Committee needs to meet far more frequently, and in any case once in three months, considering that thousands of crores of rupees are not being gainfully utilised, and in some instances, misutilised."

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Part of the Supreme Court order in response to the PIL filed in 2006 on implementation of BOCW Act. Image courtesy: Pallavi Rebbapragada/Firstpost

The other aspect that needs revision, according to Bhatnagar, are social audits. As per the draft rules prepared by the labour department, in consultation with the social groups fighting for justice after a public hearing in Delhi and Udaipur, the state government and the board would be responsible for taking follow-up action on the findings of the social audit and the implementing agencies should be regularly sensitised and appraised about the efficacy of social audit mechanism in ensuring accountability and transparency.

The implementing agency is to ensure that corrective action is taken on all the social audit reports and issue written orders within a time frame to be specified by the state government. In Gujarat, the Mahatma Gandhi Labour Institute conducts these social audits, other states need to utilise and re-orient its institutions towards the task of preparing a social audit framework.

Citing the example of Maharashtra, Madhukant Patharia suggested that the responsibility of registration of construction workers who have worked for 90 days is given to the Mahanagar Palikas. These workers are to be issued ID Cards.

“From 23 February to 23 March, a campaigning drive was held under which nearly 2 lakh workers were registered but the government says the state has 20 to 30 lakh workers,” Patharia said. He added that after putting pressure on local authorities, a registration tent was set up in district thana. But he asked why there is a need for rigorous activism on the grassroots if there is a law in place. “The labour department should spread awareness and promote unions so they can both work in tandem and one-time registration tents should be set up in remote areas,” he added.

Two decades after the first central legislation was passed, the people building India with their hands still live on the edge, or hang off of it. Instead of distributing cycles and utensils to construction labourers during elections, shouldn’t political parties spend on investigating and strengthening security?

A de-politicised narrative that can tear through the corruption net of corporators and middlemen and catch hold of the last set of hands working directly with labourers is what’s needed. Else, lakhs of those who auction their services on ‘chowks’ or ‘naakas’ across the country will continue to die.


Updated Date: Oct 24, 2018 07:58 AM

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