COVID-19 Relief: the city discards its builders

Lakhs of workers who help build the city are left out in the cold when cities shut down.

This is the fourth story in a multi-part series on the pandemic and its impact on people in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region, YUVA, a non-profit organisation, attempts to understand the challenges they face in accessing relief and assesses the rights-based approach to benefits.

Rajit, a 57-year-old construction worker is finding it hard to make ends meet after the pandemic and the subsequent lockdown hit. “I have not been able to work for a day since the March lockdown,” he says.

The official figures on the number of construction workers in Mumbai are pegged to around 6 lakhs, making them 2% of the city’s population. However, unofficial estimates are many times higher. What is clear though is Rajit is one among lakhs of workers who have been left in the lurch.

According to central government estimates, there are 5.1 crore construction workers in India. Labour unions peg this number to be nearer 6 crore. If we include the number of naka (daily-wage) workers too, contributing to the industry in myriad ways (via painting jobs, load-lifting, carpentry, etc.) these figures multiply themselves many times over, adding up to a total one can only guess. They are the invisible builders of cities, concentrated in urban centres where real estate activities are high. 

In the wake of COVID-19-induced lockdowns, they accounted for the worst-hit among migrant labourers. Systemic gaps placed accountability on no one for their plight. For them, even the loss of one day’s wage is the difference between eating a meal or going to sleep on a hungry stomach.

The lockdown was a rude shock, and since most workers are employed on short-term projects they are hardly covered by insurance and other safety nets. Most found it very difficult to pay rent, some are also burdened with loan repayment. Many were denied ration as their ration cards are in their village address, where they returned seasonally. In the weeks following lockdown in late-March 2020, with no income and no food in hand, forced to literally beg for every meal, the hardest blow was to workers’ dignity. 

Kareem, in Koparkhairane, could not pay his rent or even purchase food. He fell into depression. If not for community support (his friends and neighbours collected whatever small sums possible, ranging from Rs 10 upwards) that gave him immediate relief, he says he didn’t know what he would have done.  

Left with no option, from April onwards, millions left the city on foot, on overcrowded trucks, on trains, and regrettably many people did not survive the harsh journey home. “On the news one day I saw two workers who had interacted with us previously. They hail from Basti in Uttar Pradesh and they were trying to walk home from Maharashtra”, said Deepak Kamble, YUVA’s Labour Helpline associate. The Helpline has been operational since 2012. It has helped migrant workers access their wages and labour-related rights. In recent times though, calls seeking food and support are more common, says Kamble.  

Pic: Wikimedia Commons

Government-facilitated relief 

The Building and Other Construction Workers’ (BoCW) Welfare Cess Act, 1996, was a landmark legislation towards helping informal workers access their rights. Cess collected from builders would be used towards registered workers’ insurance, medical support, financial assistance, etc. However, the Board’s pace of registration and cess utilisation rate has been unsatisfactory from the start.  

Following Labour Ministry’s directive on 18 April, the Maharashtra Government announced a direct benefit transfer of Rs 2,000 to the accounts of every worker registered with the Maharashtra BoCW Welfare Board. A  YUVA publication highlights how only about 16 lakh are registered in the state and only around 9 lakh of them are currently reachable.  

Even those registered with the BoCW Welfare Board have difficulties in accessing benefits. Workers have not received the cash benefit pending their yearly renewal of application. 

Among other documents needed at this time is the 90-days certificate of employment from an employer, which is hard to procure for many as their nature of work spans less than 90 days each time. Thus, the lapse in renewal has meant that benefit transfers have not been accrued to many. Workers employed on large construction sites are able to navigate these challenges better as a few sites operate with a welfare approach. However, their number is not comparable to those who find themselves with no access to government welfare at this time.

The government has started the process for online submission of BoCW applications, but there are challenges with this interface too—the form gets saved but no acknowledgement is received. Sometimes the website has also been down. “While the normal application process takes about 15-20 days, given the current circumstances we have not heard back on applications even after two months”, says Raju Vanjare, YUVA.    

At a webinar organised by YUVA recently, S. C. Srirangam, BoCW Welfare Board’s Secretary and Chief Executive Officer interacted with naka leaders and mentioned how the board is setting up Welfare Facilitation Centres and trying to speed up the registration and facilitation process.

Labour struggles continue

With the nakas (street corners where daily-wage workers congregate to seek work) closed since lockdown, and these workers not usually a part of unions or larger networks through which they can seek access, work prospects are almost nil. 

“It’s  been four months—I have had no work. Now the rains are upon us, and the chance of getting work is even more slim,” says Bansi Yadav, a worker from Bihar. 

Small construction oriented work has restarted but often workers are finding it difficult to reach these locations. “I have heard of some work elsewhere, but the buses on the route are not functional,” says Sangita Bhoiyar from Nalasopara. 

The labour landscape requires strong reforms, to prevent worker vulnerabilities and help city builders access their rights. For the moment however, given the dire nature of the situation, the Maharashtra Government needs to fast-track the registration of workers, and the state should consider verification by ward offices for the 90-day-certificate requirement of workers. Direct cash transfers through bank accounts are needed, so that people have the purchasing power for basic necessities. Urban employment schemes need to be formulated for the large number of workers who are without any jobs. 

“Contrary to tall claims made by many, the migrant labourers have not started coming back as such. They are not getting much assurance. With the ongoing rains, work also tends to be slower at this time of the year” says activist Mecanzy Dabre.

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