Construction workers staged demonstrations across the country on Monday, highlighting their plight amid the COVID-19 pandemic with the lack of savings and absence of any social security measures.
Led by Construction Workers’ Federation of India (CWFI), the workers, majority of which are migrants, demanded direct cash transfers and opposed the dilution of key labour laws, meant for protection of construction workers, who account for the largest share of non-farm jobs after manufacturing.
“Protest was targeted to be observed at around 50,000 work sites, spreading over 22-23 states across the country,” said Sukhbir Singh, president of Centre of Indian Trade Union-backed construction workers’ body. “Initial reports from various states that we are receiving are telling us that the response was overwhelming.”
Demonstrations were staged, though in small groups, at construction project sites in urban areas including Delhi and Bengaluru among others. In states like Haryana and Rajasthan, protests were observed at village or block levels.
Memorandums, enlisting the major demands, were submitted to all concerned officials, at all levels – from sarpanch in the villages to state chief ministers and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
“With each day passing, the difficulties for construction workers are only increasing. For them, to sustain was never easy. And now, as things are getting worse, it is important to come together and put pressure on the government to make it pay heed to the distress of these workers,” Singh told NewsClick.
Even the lifting of the lockdown hasn’t brought much solace to the workers who say that job opportunities in the market are next to none, while their already depressed wages are witnessing further cuts. The nationwide lockdown announced on March 24 brought construction activities to a grinding halt; thereby pushing millions of the daily wage earners in the industry to an edge.
An advisory, issued by the Ministry of Labour and Employment in March itself, directed all the states and union territories to transfer funds in the account of the construction workers, collected over the years by the labour welfare boards, constituted under the Building and Other Construction Workers (BOCW) Act, 1996.
Under the act, construction firms are charged a cess, which is 1% of the total construction cost, by the states. The collected amount is earmarked for the social security benefits of construction workers, which include subsistence allowances.
About Rs 52,000 crore were available under the cess fund, according to the labour ministry’s own estimates. Later, the transfer of this unutilised fund to construction workers also became part of the relief packages announced by the Centre under Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana (PMGKY).
But, almost three months down the line, only about one-third of the construction workers covered under the scheme have received a cash transfer in their bank accounts.
Had the governments – both, central and states – listened to the many concerns of the construction workers’ unions over proper utilisation of BOCW funds, the situation would be much better now, Singh believed. Last year in December, thousands of construction workers had marched to Parliament in the national capital.
“The exodus [in the aftermath of nationwide lockdown] of migrant workers from the cities could have been averted if our demands in the past would have been considered,” Singh added.
In addition, the poorly implemented law that provides for the protection of the construction workers is now set to be subsumed under the impending labour law codes along with another shoddily implemented law, namely, Inter-state Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Services) Act, 1979.
On the pretext of ‘simplifying’ and ‘consolidating’ the labour laws – unions and other workers’ fronts have alleged – Centre is onto restricting the scope of social, economic shields to workers altogether.
“Now [in light of the pandemic], the issues of construction workers are not just that of their welfare, but of an adequate supply of ration and economic support to the whole working population of the country,” Singh said.
We can’t afford to stay quiet in these difficult times, he added.