Around 1,000 workers from the construction industry and other non-organized sectors blocked Taki Road in Hansnabad, North 24-Parganas, for around two hours on Thursday, demanding cash assistance from the government and the removal of the curbs caused by Covid.
The protesters said they were in financial distress as work had been repeatedly suspended for about 15 months.
The workers, who crouched in the street from 9 a.m. to disrupt traffic, also urged the state government to lift the curbs for domestic and interstate traffic of vehicles with building materials, as this reduced the micro-level job opportunities.
“We’re living a nightmare. We somehow survived on the rice and lentils the government gave us. But we have no money, which has created many problems, including marital problems in many homes, ”said Khalil Gazi, a bricklayer from Taki.
The construction industry has been suffering from the pandemic since February 2020. At first, migrant workers, many from Bengal, fled for fear of the disease. Then came the nationwide lockdown. Gradually the center allowed work with limited labor, but local restrictions in several states, including Bengal, hampered work. The industry expected a recovery by the end of 2021, but the second wave made matters worse.
“Last year I returned from Kerala for fear of Covid-19,” said Faruq Gazi, a bricklayer from Hansnabad, adding that he “rarely” found work as a farm laborer. He later joined a construction company. “But although the Covid-19 situation improved in Bengal at the beginning of the year, there was no regular work. My own employer was in a financial crisis. In the past six months, many like me have been unable to work for 30 days. “
“We are not starving, but the state government has not given us any cash aid,” he said, adding that at least 2,000 rupees per month was required.
Construction industry insiders said the workers’ problems are real.
“Work was reduced to a trickle from May 3rd (according to the polls from the congregation when the first new restrictions were introduced). As of May 15th, it has become almost zero. Workers face a shortage of money as the industry operates on a ‘no work and pay’ principle, ”a source said.
After the government of Mamata Banerjee offered some easing this month, the real estate industry works with 50 percent of the normal workforce, which means every second eligible person gets a job.
But movement restrictions mean that only those who stay on the construction sites get work. Work is also hampered by curbs when transporting trucks with building materials. The government has now allowed work on construction sites if workers are vaccinated. Brokers say they have vaccinated around 10,000 workers so far.
“We want to vaccinate more workers, but many are stuck at home. They cannot commute without public transport. If the government takes some precautions, more workers can work, ”said Nandu Belani, president of the Calcutta chapter of Credai, an association of brokers.
There is no formal estimate of how many people are employed in the real estate industry, but the overall construction, which also includes infrastructure such as roads and bridges, provides no less than 35 lakh jobs.
Sushil Mohta, owner of Merlin Group and president of Credai West Bengal, said the work had only reached 50 percent in the past few days. “Before that it was almost 15-20 percent. I visited many construction sites today (Thursday) and found that work is being delayed due to labor shortage. They want to take part, but cannot because of transport problems, ”said Mohta.