The things women construction workers wish they could change

Women prefer work in construction but are hit hard by poor environmental conditions, risk of lockdowns and economic hardship.

This is the second of a two-part story looking at how women construction workers are disproportionately affected by air pollution and other work place related issues. Read Part I here

Women workers in the construction sector, whom the Mahila Housing Trust spoke to in connection with a report they are working on, said they preferred construction work over other occupations for a variety of reasons, one being the higher daily wage rates it offers as compared to other occupations. According to a woman construction worker from Bakkarwala, “we prefer to work at construction sites since we get a daily wage of Rs 300 or Rs 400 as compared to Rs 50 per day in factories”.

Other factors mentioned by these women, on why they prefer construction work, were:

  • Flexibility in working hours. Women can visit their homes during lunch time and feed their children, whereas in other occupations, they are not able to leave the workplace in between
  • Construction work has been their family profession
  • Women feel safe and secure as they go to work in groups and are in the midst of their family and community members.

The issues that they consider important are susceptibility to COVID-19 and resultant lock downs, inability to provide adequate food and education to their children, medical expenses, inflation and alcoholism among spouses.

Poor sanitation and drainage were common complaints in all the locations and the menace of stray pigs in some locations. Most (41%) consider their condition as a part of destiny while 37% blame it on the government.

Environment and other issues

Among the serious environmental problems flagged by the women surveyed was the problem of open drainage in their colonies (60%), supply of contaminated water and irregular water supply (55%), open defecation (40%), unsanitary conditions (38%) and air pollution from various sources (37%).

Women construction workers are generally involved in dealing with raw materials exposing them to greater risks of air pollution compounded with the problem of lower wages as compared to men workers.

With their plethora of responsibilities, they are more vulnerable to exploitation in various forms. At construction sites, they are mostly given unskilled work at lower wages. Often, they do not get jobs due to prevailing favouritism among contractors and remain at the mercy of the builders and contractors. Even if they get work, it is usually for 10-15 days a month. Further, there is a trend of machines taking over unskilled jobs and workers getting displaced from work opportunities, more so in large construction projects.

Read more: What ‘work from home’ means for women in informal settlements

The study also quotes a report extracted from Rights and Vulnerabilities, a research study of migrant women workers in the informal sector in Delhi, 2004. It cites the plight of a construction worker Pinky from Bhimrao Camp in Dakshinpuri, who works in Delhi for eight or ten months every year. She and her husband have worked for the same contractor for many years.

“Do I like my work? Well, there is no other choice,” said Pinky. “Construction work is the only kind of work open to seasonal migrants like us. I keep going back to the village…because I miss my children. The work is very strenuous. We often lift loads of 100 kg. Haath pair bahut dard karte hain. (Our hands and feet ache a lot.) I am mostly involved in public related construction work — building roads, public utilities, toilets, garbage pits etc. The stench is terrible. Sometimes, we have to vomit because of the stench of the garbage”.

Pinky’s shift begins at about 9 am and finishes at about 5 pm. They get a lunch break for an hour and often have to work after 5 pm, sometimes all night till 5 am the next day, with no rest.

“We get overtime after 5 pm. Depending on how long after we work. Night shift may cost the contractor Rs 135 per day,” Pinky said.

Every week they get about Rs 200 per labourer for rations, living expenses and they collect the total dues and leave for the village once work is over.

The workers generally do not get any leave. The contractor informs them a day in advance when there is work and a tempo comes to collect them in the morning. He pays for this. They do not get any food or water and  have to ask the people nearby for drinking water. Or find a tap to drink from.

No health check-ups of workers are done at construction sites. Many construction workers suffer from scoliosis due to inhalation of white cement. Women carry loads of materials and they use folded cloth on their heads. Half of the mud or the materials fall on their face, causing respiratory issues and allergies.

There are modules for clean construction practices available. The handbook of ‘Clean Construction Practices in Surat’, developed under Surat Clean Air Action Plan 2020, articulates the various stages where workers are exposed to high levels of PM2.5 and PM10 pollutants. Perhaps similar handbooks can be prepared for Delhi, to ensure that acceptable standards are followed.

What is evident is the general lack of intent among governments and stakeholders to serve the interests of the construction worker community. This apathy leaves construction workers in extremely vulnerable circumstances due to illnesses or during construction bans, the study found.

Even the law could go against them

The Building and Other Construction Workers (BOCW) Regulation of Employment and Condition of Services Act of 1996 was enacted to regulate the employment and conditions of service of building and other construction workers and to provide for their safety, health and welfare measures.

But a new Labour Code on Social Security and Welfare is in the offing, seeking to replace the existing 15 laws on social security. Unfortunately, many benefits presently accessible under the existing acts may not exist under the new code, and revoking these can have a catastrophic effect on construction workers as registrations of workers will lapse.

There is already a huge gap between the estimated number of construction workers and workers registered with welfare boards (it is estimated that less than 50% of estimated workers are registered with such boards). Further, it will also lead to the closure of 37 State and UTs BOCW boards and workers will have to again enrol themselves with state welfare boards.

These newly formed state boards will also consist of other unorganised sector workers, and all of them will be listed in the same place. Which means, the cess presently collected and meant specifically for the welfare of construction workers would go into a shared social assistance fund which will cover other categories of workers too.

Workers’ wish list

The women wanted a source of steady income in the future, good education and well being of their children, cleaner surroundings, better houses and better medical facilities. None of them wanted their daughters to do the work they are doing at present.

The study found that 68% women felt that focusing on air pollution may negatively influence growth and employment especially as the construction workers themselves are not the cause. They were also of the view that a shut down is no solution. Fines may be imposed on polluting units and laws may be enforced more strictly, they felt.

women construction workers
What is evident is the general lack of intent among governments and stakeholders to serve the interests of the women construction workers. Pic courtesy Mahila Housing Trust (MHT)

The survey said 90% of the surveyed workers felt that government should improve public transport so that people do not use personal vehicles to commute to work.

Workers wanted the government to play a critical role in mitigating air pollution by a complete ban on the entry of polluted vehicles or old vehicles in the city (67%), waste collection and disposal across the city (86%) and switching over to cleaner power generation processes (74%).

Read more: The story of Bombay’s troubled history with its sex workers

They wanted the government to launch a mass media campaign throughout by putting hoardings and banners and placing advertisements in TV and Radio to sensitize citizens about air quality.

The study said that 94% of the respondents never protest or take any steps to prevent the negative impact of air pollution due to the fear of losing their jobs. The general attitude was that preventing air pollution at construction sites is the sole responsibility of the contractors. One-fourth indicated that they were unaware of how they could contribute towards building a cleaner environment.

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