Kolkata: The fund, for which cess is collected from all constructions having over ten lakh rupees project cost, is meant for the betterment of lives of construction and allied workers in the trade. But this is allegedly being diverted to the government treasury directly instead of putting the cess in the welfare board account under the labour department of government of West Bengal. Debanjan Chakraborty, vice president of Construction Workers’ Federation of India (CWFI) and member of the West Bengal Building and Other Construction Workers' Welfare Board, told NewsClick.
The cess collected is paid to the Welfare Board constituted under the BOCW Act, after deduction of the cost of collection, which is to not exceed 1% of the amount collected. Such social security schemes were first started in West Bengal during the time of the last Left Front Government and was extended to construction workers. Through the scheme, a construction worker in distress or his/her family member in case of the worker’s death would get a lump-some amount out of the cess collected.
Chakraborty said the serious mismanagement of affairs also negates a 2018 Supreme Court Judgement by Justices Madan B Lokur and Deepak Gupta directing that the BOCW fund cannot be transferred to government treasury and instead, the fund should be properly invested with nationalised banks.
The Centre for Indian Trade Unions (CITU) has also pointed out the alleged mismanagement in a separate letter to the Labour Commissioner of the WB government.
The latest board meeting follows a tradition whereby the representatives of trade unions say they are unable to wield much influence as the government by sheer majority with the help of industrial bodies passes orders and transfers “illegally” the cess collection to the government treasury.
“This is a government which do not listen to logic but has to be forced to do so,” said Shyamaprasad Roy, secretary of CWFI in South 24 Parganas district. West Bengal accounts for 1,64,000 memberships of CWFI out of the total 14 lakh plus members of the pan-Indian organisation. With the construction sector remaining largely unorganised with around 7 crore workers’ involvement, CWFI is the largest body of construction workers in the country.
Recently, at the Shramik Mela (Workers Fair) events in Kolkata, and South and North 24 Parganas the anger of the distraught workers was palpable. In the Canning David Hare School in South 24 Parganas, the programme had to be stopped after continuous sloganeering by more than hundreds of CWFI workers accusing the government of being thieves for depositing the cess fund with the government treasury. CITU leader Gargi Chatterjee led another blockade on behalf of CWFI in the North 24 Parganas Shramik Mela in Barrackpore, on which the police lathi-charged. In Kolkata, at Ramlila park, about five important ministers’ convoys had to be turned to the opposite direction after protesters occupied the fairground and shouted slogans.
In the state, reports often emerge of death of construction workers working on high-rises or bridges. Presently, the cess amount is supposed to provide the immediate family of the deceased worker an amount of Rs 3 lakhs. However, transfer of the fund to government treasury has prevented these benefactors from availing the compensation. Furthermore, a digital corridor has been opened to them for availing the benefits, which most of them do not understand and a portal called ‘Jai Bangla’, which had earlier faced hiccups, is now the only interface for the workers to get the cess benefits.
Also, children’s education allowance and healthcare allowance for the construction workers are being brought under a nodal Swastha Sathi scheme, whose low project cost outlay has made the statistical realisation of the scheme an impossible task. Clubbing the construction workers from the existing scheme with this new one makes their chance of getting medical allowance a far-flung chance.
All these decisions are being taken by the government first and are put up for post-facto approval in the board meeting. After the decision on Swastha Sathi, the entire cess scheme seems to be in jeopardy, which, till June 2020, benefited 30,69,245 persons in all the 23 districts of the state and Rs 9,10,39,11,583 were distributed to them till June 30, 2020.
The construction workers’ minimum wage revision has still not taken place, said Debanjan Chakraborty, who is also a member of the Minimum Wage Advisory Board of the state government. Quoting the 7th Central Pay Commission which put the minimum wage at Rs 25,000 for skilled and Rs 18,547 for unskilled workers, Chakraborty claimed that CPC recommendation received a mixed response in the state as TMC advisors said to make it only Rs 10,000, to which the CITU grossly objected.
Presently, the minimum wage in the state is Rs 338 for unskilled workers, Rs 409 for skilled, and Rs 449 for highly skilled workers. The CITU West Bengal state committee had last November placed the demand to revise the minimum wage in the state and has forwarded the attached sheet of calculation to arrive at a minimum wage as per the 15th Indian Labour Conference (ILC) norms.