Kolkata: Requests and appeals to the Union government over the past several months not having yielded the desired results, building and other construction workers will stage a ‘March to Parliament’ on December 5 as part of their stepped up agitation in support of their demand to continue The Building And Other Construction Workers (Regulation of Employment And Conditions of Service) Act, 1996 (BOCW Act).
In other words, building and construction workers are opposed to the Centre’s decision to merge with the proposed universal welfare code, the existing arrangements under the 1996 enactments and related amendments.
The ‘March to Parliament’ on December 5 will be held under the aegis of the Construction Workers Federation of India, which is affiliated to the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU).
The BOCW Act and The Building And Other Construction Workers’ Welfare Cess Act, 1996 (Cess Act) together govern and prescribe implementation methods for the welfare of the workforce in this crucial segment of the economy.
While the CITU-affiliated federation is spearheading the December 5 agitation, other central trade unions too are in favour of the 1996 Acts to be continued. The CITU-affiliated federation has under its umbrella about 300 unions, including a fairly large number at the district level, and they together command a total membership of around 13 lakh.
Asked by NewsClick why the federation was demanding continuation of the 1996 Acts and opposing the proposed universal welfare code, its president Sukhbir Singh (based in Hisar, Haryana) and vice-president Debanjan Chakrabarti said they were quite certain that benefits currently admissible to registered workers would be drastically curtailed or even abolished once the Acts were merged with the welfare code.
Building and construction workers are from the vulnerable segments of society and their job is characterised by “inherent risk to life and limbs”. Therefore, they are entitled to several benefits, the important ones being children’s education allowance (from primary to higher education in medical, engineering and management streams), housing loans, pension, relief in cases of accidents, maternity benefits and even supply of workers’ tools and spectacles.
The scope of benefits can be widened if utilisation of funds is stepped up and private sector establishments pay the cess, as a large number of them are defaulters in this respect.
Government establishments, such as the Railways, Central Public Works Department, defence construction units and public sector construction undertakings, however, regularly discharge their cess payment obligations. It because of their compliance, that “there is a fund of Rs 44,000 crore as per the latest estimates”. But the benefits given to the registered beneficiaries add up to Rs 12,000 crore only, Singh and Chakrabarti pointed out.
The size of the fund could have been higher than Rs 44,000 crore had collection of cess from the private sector establishments been strictly enforced, they added.
The building and other construction workforce, according to official estimates, stands at around five crore. “But, we think the number is much higher. A very large number of activity is covered under the Acts for the purpose entitlements -- masonery, carpentry, those doing plaster of Paris, painting; to mention a few. There are lakhs of self-employed persons, said Chakrabarti.
Regarding poor implementation of the Acts by the Union government and states, it may be mentioned that a two-judge Bench of the Supreme Court, comprising Justices Madan B Lokur and Deepak Gupta, had passed strictures against the authorities in their judgement dated March 19, 2018 while disposing of a writ petition in which National Campaign Committee for Central Legislation on Construction Labour was the petitioner and Union of India and Others were the respondents.
The Justices were highly critical of slippages in holding meetings of official bodies set up under the Acts, collection of cess, maintenance of accounts, including differences in figures and neglect of workers’ interest. Even prescribed benefits have not been extended, they noted.
Referring to the Centre’s affidavit dated October 9, 2015 disclosing that not a single state advisory committee had held a meeting in the previous 12 months, the judgement observed : “...........there is a total lack of concern and apathy on the part of the powers that be in doing anything substantial for the benefit of construction workers. This is indeed an extremely sorry state of affairs that puts a Shakespearean tragedy to shame”.
As for the availability and reliability of cess collection/utilisation figures, the judgement observed: “It must be appreciated that the CAG is a constitutional authority under Article 148 of the Constitution charged with the duty and adequately empowered by Article 149 of the Constitution in relation to the accounts of the Union and the States. If this constitutional body does not have the required and accurate information, there is undoubtedly a financial mess in this area and this chaos has been existing since 1996”.
In this context, it may be mentioned that Union minister of state in-charge for labour and employment (Independent) Santosh Gangwar informed the Lok Sabha in a written reply on December 17, 2018 that following the Supreme Court judgement dated March 19, 2018 the Centre had formulated a model welfare scheme for building and other construction workers which, inter alia, envisaged maternity benefit out of the BOCW welfare cess fund for those workers who are not covered under Ayushman Bharat.
In the same written reply, the wide difference between cess collection by the states and Union Territories and the amount spent on registered beneficiaries was evident --- the figures as on September 30, 2018 being Rs 45,473 crore and Rs 17,592 crore, respectively.
Chakrabarti virtually ruled out the possibility of workers who lost their jobs in stalled housing projects being absorbed when work resumed under the Centre’s bail-out package for the real estate sector announced on November 6.
“See, they are mostly migrant workers. When work stopped, many of them might have gone back to where they came from. Some of them may have found alternate earning sources accepting even less than what they were getting earlier,” he said, adding that much would depend whether the same contractor, the same sub-contractor and the same petty contractor were re-engaged when revival schemes are launched.
“However, chances are that contractors and workers would be new when stalled projects were revived”, Chakravarti said.
On November 6, a Rs 25,000 crore special scheme for the real estate sector was launched by the Centre in a bid to remove certain deficiencies that were there in the relief scheme announced in mid-September. In the new fund, the Centre would contribute Rs 10,000 crore. Contributors for the balance Rs 15,000 crore were to be SBI, LIC and some sovereign and pension funds. As many as 1,600 projects involving some 4.58 lakh housing units are to be covered under the new relief measure.