New Delhi: Concerns over the Labour Codes, which trade unions feel will empower employers to “further shirk their responsibilities” toward workers, were raised afresh on Thursday, as construction workers across the country went on a two-day strike. The workers are demanding that the law concerning their welfare board should not be codified.
According to the striking workers, the codification of the Building and Other Construction Workers (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act 1996 under the Code on Occupational Safety, Health & Working Conditions, would lead to “dilution” of the already neglected provisions of the construction workers’ welfare law.
The 1996 law provides for setting up of a welfare board by each state government for utilising funds, collected through the cess on construction work, for the welfare of construction workers – the benefits for registered workers with the board include pension, accident insurance, medical aid, scholarship for children among others.
The OSHWC Code, one among the three Labour Codes that were passed in Parliament in September last year, subsumes the construction workers’ welfare law, along with other 12 other Central enactments. In total, there are four Labour Codes that subsume 25 Central labour regulations.
On Thursday, district-level protests were staged by striking construction workers in over 20 across the country, Sukhbir Singh, president, Construction Workers’ Federation of India (CWFI) told Newsclick. These included Haryana, Punjab, Delhi, Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, Telangana, West Bengal, Jammu & Kashmir among others.
Affiliated to Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), CWFI is among the largest trade unions in the sector, claiming a membership of over 10 million.
“Almost all our members participated in the strike action,” Singh told NewsClick over the phone from Haryana, adding: “Tomorrow protests will be staged at the BOCW headquarters in all the states.”
R Kottum Raju, speaking to Newsclick from Telangana, said the response to the strike action was “very good” in the state, with demonstration being staged in 25 out of 31 districts. According to Raju, among the major fears of the construction workers’ union is that occupational safety provisions of the workers will be compromised once it is clubbed with other industries.
Similarly, concerns over collection of cess– that is not less than 1% of the cost of construction – have also been raised, as Newsclick has reported earlier, with the Centre now introducing the concept of self-assessment of cess amount by employers.
“The BOCW Act [of 1996] is among the finest Acts for the working population in terms of its welfare provisions. Which is why, the unions are pressing that it should not be subsumed within the Labour Codes. As then it will be very difficult to ensure social and occupational protection to the huge number of these workers,” said Siddheshwar Shukla of Delhi-based Rajdhani Bhawan Nirman Kamgar Union, who is also a member of BOCW welfare board in Delhi.
Jagdish Sharma, national secretary, CWFI, said while “dilution” of the protective shield for construction workers is the “paramount issue,” the construction unions on Tuesday are also demanding non-codification of another law, namely, The Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979.
In India, construction, being the second-largest employer after the agriculture sector, absorbs a significant portion of all internal migrants in urban areas who move out of the farming sector – with a large number of them, in the absence of any organised setup, depending on daily wages for their survival.
“There are many provisions of the 1979 Act that will be diluted under the Codes and will thereby, directly affect construction workers,” Sharma told Newsclick over phone. The 40-year-old Act mandates registration of migrant workers and protects them under the laws relating to minimum wage, safety and accident coverage among others.
But, as Sharma noted, registration of migrants is “non-existent” on the ground, hinting that the implementation of the law was already very poor. It is also now subsumed under the OSHWC Code.
To be sure, enforcement of the OSHWC Code, along with others, is currently delayed, with several States still in the process of finalising the draft notifications of rules, despite the push from the Narendra Modi – led Central government. This is even as the codification process altogether has invited flak from Central trade unions, which have been demanding the withdrawal of the Codes – now, in an intensified manner after repeal of the contentious agriculture laws.
As the pandemic-induced lockdown last year brought construction activities to a grinding halt, issues relating to inadequate government support were also brought to the fore on Thursday.
Diwanjan Chawkroborty from West Bengal said many construction workers in his state were still reeling under financial woes triggered by the pandemic. “Many workers here received no support during the first lockdown last year. While, this year, during the second lockdown, no support for tconstruction workers was announced,” the CWFI’s vice president said.
The government’s own estimates, shared in Lok Sabha earlier this year, show that West Bengal was not the only state where construction workers received no benefits during the second pandemic wave. Even during the first wave, not all construction workers were covered by the assistance, data show.
Harinder Singh from Rajasthan told Newsclick that the economic situation of the construction workers in the country was “getting worse day by day.” According to him, during the protest demonstration in Jaipur on Thursday, demands included building of toilets and availability of fresh water for construction workers on labour chowks in the city.
“There are many issues of the construction workers. Yet, what we first need is a government that does not turn its back on us,” a CWFI leader said.