Unconstructed safety net of construction workers in India

Media India Group | April 28, 2021

1 in 4 worker dies on construction sites: IIT Delhi study

Despite being the second-largest employer and present in almost every corner of the country, dismal conditions of workplace safety and health hazards of construction workers, leading to large-scale deaths, never make the headlines.

Every morning, groups of men and women squat on pavements in various streets of Delhi, hoping to find the day’s job. They carry their tools and often a measly meal in their bags. Their clothing worn and their skin leathery, the expressions on their faces are weary and resigned. These are construction workers of India, one of the largest sector for employment, but with practically no regulation over working conditions or workplace safety. Even in the national capital, the workers make barely INR 500 a day, and that too on a day that finds work as all of them do not manage to get work every day.

But even those who do manage to find work are not really fortunate ones as their workplace is often a dangerous, ill-equipped construction site. Construction is one of the most hazardous sectors in India, with an average of about 38 fatal accidents a day. Falls from heights, electrocutions and falling walls and scaffolding cause one in four Indian construction workers to die at construction sites, according to a 2019 study by the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Delhi.

“I am at the naka or at a site working all day. I cannot take care of her from there, so I prefer she comes with me and earns a bit for the house,” says Meena Ben Rathwa, holding her 14-year-old daughter Jhini’s hand, as they stand at Santnagar Naka in South Delhi, hoping to find work for the day.

Meena Ben and her husband Rajesh Rathwa are among the tens of millions of naka workers – casual workers who gather at a junction to get hired for daily wage work – employed in the construction sector, the fastest-growing and second-largest daily wage employer in India after agriculture. This has been Meena Ben’s livelihood for the past 13 years.

Little data on the huge sector
Nearly 50 million Indians worked in construction between 1983 and 2011-12, and the sector absorbs the largest proportion of rural workers surplus in agriculture. Workers at Santnagar say that despite the uncertainty, they prefer to work in the construction sector because work is more regularly available and wages slightly better than in agriculture.

As per the government of India, the construction sector contributes 9 pc of the GDP and employs 44 million workers, becoming the second-largest employer in India in 2017. “Surprisingly, while it is a huge number by all measures, the sector is also one where the workforce is forced to work in deplorable conditions with no provision of basic shelter, food, sanitation, safety, health care,” says Abhivyakti Raigarhi, a Delhi-based social worker who works with NGO Labourall.

Data on the sector is rare. A 2019 study by IIT Delhi says that around 48,000 people die at work in India every year, out of which 70 pc are construction workers. But Raigarhi says that the numbers may be highly understated as most cases of accidents or deaths at construction sites are not reported at all.

“If someone is injured and dies 15 days later in a hospital or at home, the connection between the accident and the death is very difficult to prove because the person was registered as injured. As more time passes, it becomes harder to establish responsibility,” she explains.

Expansion and management
Kumar Neeraj Jha, a civil engineering professor at IIT Delhi and author of Workplace deaths in India, describes the pattern of evasion of responsibility that repeats itself every time an accident occurs. “When a fatal accident takes place, the employer gets off by paying a small compensation to the families and conspires with police and labour inspectors to make the whole thing go away.”

Labourall says it is common for Indian companies not to invest in occupational safety because it’s cheaper to pay the puny compensation after accidents than to modernise their facilities to make them safer.

Professor Jha says that many agricultural labourers shift hastily towards the construction industry in anticipation of steadier or additional income. “They are hired from remote villages with the promise of a better lifestyle. However, once brought to the city, the workers are left to fend for themselves and provided almost no training, education, or safety mechanisms to protect themselves or their families,” he adds.

In order to curb the exploitation and provide for more safety and increase the effectiveness of employability structures and the benefits, two Central Acts came into being in 1996 – the Building and Other Constructions Workers (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act (popularly known as the BOCW Act) and the Building and Other Constructions Workers Welfare Cess Act.

Cyclic nature of problems
The BOCW Act is social welfare legislation that aims to benefit workers engaged in building and construction activities across the country. However, professor Jha says that intentions behind the Act are not fructified on the ground due to multiple reasons.

“Fundamentally, the guidelines of the Act are ambiguous whilst explaining the registration of the worker. With no clarity on who would monitor or authenticate the worker as a bonafide worker, workers face problems in the registration process,” Jha explains.

He further says that the trade unions, which mobilise and unite the labour force in the state also have the authority to authenticate the workers as bonafide. This creates space for malpractices in an area that can easily be regulated. Trade unions often also charge discriminatory prices for naive workers. The registration amount charged is sometimes up to 200 times more than the actual registration charge.

The same practice is often repeated when it comes to the annual renewal of registration. Also as workers often work on different sites with different contractors, their registrations are practically never permanent. “Most often, therefore, they prefer to remain undocumented. This is a process that needs to be looked over by the Labour Offices in order to ensure that registration rates don’t fall, and every worker is documented,” says Jha.

No training for risky tasks
Workers in the construction industry are also poorly trained because their employers know that they are easily replaced. “Their contractors don’t give them adequate training because they know that they are only there on a temporary basis, so they are not interested in investing in their training and safety,” explains professor Jha.

A report by the Delhi Institute of Human Development shows that less than 30 pc of workers have completed secondary education and that only one in 10 receives training specific to their work.

Labourall hopes the situation for workers would improve once the Covid-19 pandemic is under control. “Our efforts, however imperfect, is the first step in shining light on an aspect of the construction industry that most of its prominent stakeholders would rather ignore – a pervasive lack of safety, and an equally shocking lack of government oversight,” says Raigarhi who plans to have a meeting with labour unions regarding the issue as soon as the lockdown currently on in New Delhi ends.