How we treat our employees

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As the World Cup looms in Qatar, part of the international media is talking about how workers from the subcontinent are being treated there – the Kafila system, low wages, poor working conditions and a lack of infrastructure for the workers. However, the Indian media is mostly silent. Perhaps this is a reflection on how we treat our construction workers in India and their living conditions.

Walk down any street in Bengaluru and you will likely see a new building being constructed. Normally 4-5 people work on the building at one location. Typically, a contractor appoints a resident worker to the site who is housed in makeshift and poorly constructed accommodation – a small room and an outbuilding. Many workers come with their families. Women help transport bricks and other materials during construction.

It is common to see young children imitating or even helping their parents. Given the short construction period, children are rarely sent to the city’s schools. When the children are old enough, the families move back to their villages so that the children can perhaps go to school. But while in the city, they have poor access to services like education, water, sanitation, and health.

Even on larger construction sites, workers struggle with poor housing, poor sanitation, stressful working conditions, poor social life, long hours, low wages and unsafe work environments, and social isolation. While adults often suffer from diseases, children suffer from malnutrition, cholera, respiratory diseases from inhaling paint fumes and cement/dust particles. All are prone to accidents. Because workers are migrants, they are typically excluded from primary health care settings. However, some construction companies ensure health facilities, but these are limited.

Several studies show that most construction workers in Bengaluru are migrants from Bihar, UP and Bengal, mostly males between the ages of 21 and 35, from impoverished families, often from SC/ST and minority backgrounds, and mostly illiterate. Most come alone to the city and only bring their families when they have settled in. Even in their villages and hometowns, they have little access to education or livelihoods, and migration is often the only strategy for survival. In the workers’ mandis, where they collect their daily/weekly work, haggling over their daily wages is a window to workers’ exploitation. Women are almost non-existent in this exercise due to exploitation and security issues.

How we treat our workers, how they are paid, what they end up with, how they are housed and how we interact with them on a daily basis says a lot about us as a people and as a society. The casualness with which workers are abused is problematic and reflects our society.

During the pandemic, many of the men and women who walked miles back to their villages and towns were construction workers. While many helped them immediately after lockdown, not much has been done to address the structural reasons for the treatment received
from them.

We have legislation, the Building & Other Construction Workers’ Act 1996, but it is void. Technically, every state has a welfare agency that pays compensation for disability or death of a worker, provides health care benefits, sanctions assistance at marriages or funerals, provides home construction loans, maternity benefits for female beneficiaries, pensions, and so on.

However, local governments do not have mechanisms for registering workers with the boards and employers do not feel obliged to do so. In 2014, the Karnataka Welfare Board registered just 30% of all workers. While the Karnataka Building & Other Construction Workers’ Welfare Board collected more than Rs. 3,000 in levies from the construction industry in 2014, it only paid out a small amount to the workers. Loopholes in the law do not oblige employers/contractors to ensure that school-age children are sent to school. Builders only have to set up crèches where 50 workers are employed, which normally never happens. Due to the migratory nature of workers, non-profit organizations find it difficult to organize them. After Covid 19, some organizations made unsuccessful demands to the Welfare Office.

Perhaps it is time to show more empathy for the Indian workers on our home soil. If every homeowner, developer, architect, contractor, politician, and neighbor takes small steps by providing workers on their construction sites with better housing, sanitation, education, and childcare, there may be a chance to improve the conditions of our people. Only then can we complain about how Qatar is treating our people.

(The author is a Bengaluru-based urban planner)

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