Kamlesh Lahli has not been free for a single day in the past two months. The 37-year-old resides in Haryana’s Rohtak with her husband and three children—one son and two daughters—and engages in construction work to secure the basic necessities of life for her family. But it’s not the loading and unloading of construction material or the fast-moving machines on some project site that have kept her busy. In fact, quite the opposite of it.
“Since last year, due to the pandemic, construction work across the state has been severely affected. There is less work available now; and even for that the wages are lesser than what a worker would earn earlier,” said Lahli, district vice president of the Bhawan Nirman Kamgar Union (BNKU), who has been partaking in a two-month long statewide campaign to mobilise the construction workers.
“They are angry with the state government for not fulfilling its responsibilities,” Lahli told NewsClick on Monday, August 2, after distributing the union’s pamphlet to working people at as many doors as possible in her district during the past two months.
On Tuesday, August 3, this simmering anger among the construction workers in the state is set to boil over into a demonstration to demand answers from Haryana's Deputy Chief Minister Dushyant Singh Chautala. The union, which is affiliated to Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), has given a call to gherao his Sirsa residence for a day. Chautala currently holds the charge of the State Labour and Employment, along with other ministries.
“More than 200 public meetings were organised across the state as part of our campaign in the past two months,” Sukhbir Singh, president, BNKU said. “We are thus expecting around 4,000 construction workers to reach Sirsa tomorrow.”
On June 8, the first of these block-level meetings were organised at different places under the guidance of the union, to draw attention to the lack of savings and inadequate social protections for the construction workers in the state during the second wave of COVID-19 pandemic that caused a devastating surge in cases in the month of April and May this year. The demands that the construction workers’ union is raising include, above all, a smooth and non-cumbersome process of registering workers to the state welfare board and implementation of a time-bound process through which the benefits of the schemes can be delivered.
The Haryana Building and Other Construction Workers Welfare Board, a statutory body, is tasked with ensuring welfare of the construction workforce in the state. For the same, the law requires employers, including the government, public and private sector along with individuals to pay a welfare cess—amounting to 1% of the construction cost—to the board.
The benefits for a worker registered with the board include medical assistance and paid maternity leaves, among others. Active membership of a construction worker with the welfare board is the prerequisite to claim the benefits mandated. While it all looks “good on paper,” Singh pointed out, the situation on ground is grim. According to him, workers need to submit a ‘90 days certificate of employment’ to be eligible for the registration to the board.
Furthermore, Singh added, that though it was always difficult to procure this proof of employment—given the nature of jobs within the construction sector is not regular—the process “only got more inconvenient” after a change in rules back in 2018 that disallowed the workers’ unions to issue the said certificates.
“It was around that year only when the whole process of registering workers to the board was also made online (as opposed to having a more worker-friendly process by accepting offline applications),” Singh complained, adding that this ensured that even those who were previously registered with the board would now be bereft of the benefits that they were entitled to. “The workers were asked to go through a renewal process of their registration—which is now online,” Singh said.
When the pandemic-triggered lockdown started to wreak havoc in the labour market in March last year, governments did find themselves in a tough position to cushion the blow—even in cases when direct cash assistance, as demanded by unions and labour experts, was announced. A year-and-a-half down the line, as numbers now show, Haryana emerged as no outlier. For example, in the month of April last year, The Bharatiya Janata Party-Jannayak Janata Party coalition government in the state did announce a monthly financial aid of Rs. 4,500 to the construction workers in Haryana.
As per Haryana government’s estimates, there were over 8.5 lakh construction workers registered with the board, out of whom over 5 lakh workers were active as on July 2020. However, the aid announced that year was to be paid by the state’s welfare board to only about 3.5 lakh construction workers, since only they were the ones registered “online” with the board.
Even then, close to 40,000 eligible construction workers were unable to receive any assistance from the welfare board during the first wave of COVID-19 pandemic, according to the figures shared by Union Labour Minister Bhupendra Yadav in response to a question asked in Lok Sabha earlier last month during the ongoing monsoon session.
“The state government keeps on making the announcement without first solving the problems with the process. The leaders want to score political points, however, the main aim should be to ensure that workers are socially protected,” said Singh. On June 17 this year, the Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar announced Rs. 5000 per month to construction workers’ families in the state.
Surekha, state president, CITU, told NewsClick said that with this campaign that will culminate on August 3 with the gherao demonstration, the union is also trying to bring to the fore the issues that are faced by the women construction workers. “We were not able to do that in the past despite receiving complaints of non-availability of creches at the construction site or regarding having to face sexual harassment. But this time, we made sure to raise these demands as well during the campaign,” she said. Its results are clearly visible, Surekha said, adding that about 40% of the protesters in Sirsa on August 3 are expected to be women.
When asked about it, Lahli did not disagree. The union members, during the past few months, have received a more positive response from the women construction workers than men, according to her. “I myself, had received the amount (announced by the state government) for 4 months last year, but many in the district did not. Being women, they are also finding it difficult to get work these days,” she said. Lahli added, “It is time for the women to take a lead role in raising the demand that concerns every construction worker.”