Strong women, poor awareness

Umang, Asian College of Journalism

 Chennai: Lekha, 35, had come from Madhya Pradesh (MP) with her husband five years ago in search of work. Her father-in-law had property to be divided amongst his sons. But the portion she and her husband got was very little. So they sold it and came to Chennai.

The plan was that they would work hard for a year, earn a good amount of money and then go back and live peacefully in the comfort of their village. However, this was not to be. It has been four years and they are still moving from one construction site to another.

Lekha’s story is a microcosm of the nature of a woman labourer’s life in the construction industry. The hope for better employment pushes them out of villages and pulls towards the city and then they never go back to their villages.

The 64th round of the National Sample Survey (2010) had revealed that in 2007-08, 25 per cent of the population migrating to cities was employed in the construction industry.

According to the International Labour Organisation report on employment inIndia, between 1999 and 2005, approximately 10 lakh migrantshave been employed in the construction industry each year.

Not a single woman at various construction sites across the city has any information about the legal requirements their employers are meant to abide by; they think that their husbands or contractors must know. For them it is hard to believe that they have any legal rights at all.

Muniamma,60, a widow and abandoned by her children, works nine hours everyday at a construction site in Guindy.  She gets paid Rs 300 per day, Rs 200 less than her male co-workers but she is not aware that she is entitled to an equal wage.

Building and other Construction Workers Act (BOCW) 1996, was the main legislation concerning labour welfare in the construction industry. The law made it compulsory for any construction activity with more than 10 workers to follow the guidelines set by it. All the workers employed must be registered and must receive benefits provided by a welfare board.

The board is also supposed to give an identity card to the workers with which they could avail themselves of the benefits, says A. Michael Joseph, a member of NGO, Construction Workers Welfare Union.

None of the workers has any identity card and they don’t even know of such thing, especially female workers.

Concerns about general health remain predominant on the minds of workers since any major accident in their household results in a loss of savings and indebtedness.

The fear of getting hurt is highest when women are new to this line of work. The companies offer medical help and compensation when there is a major accident on the site. But, if workers fall sick or suffer from minor injuries they have to consult doctors by themselves and incur expenses out of their daily wages.

Pushpa, 40, another migrant labourer from MP, said, “Last month I slipped on the staircase while carrying a heavy load of cement on my head. Neither the contractor nor the company owner helped me. I could not come to the work for 15 days.”

Sanitation and hygiene are poor at these construction sites.

Gautami, 28, three months pregnant, said, “Sanitary napkins and soaps are not easily available or are too expensive. There is no facility for their disposal. When we menstruate, we feel embarrassed to ask for leave from male supervisors as no female overseers are found at sites.”

Many pregnant women continue to work at least six months into their pregnancy. Their supervisors never tell them to stop work for the time period.

“I still do the same work I used to do earlier. My husband wants me to continue work and if I refuse he beats me,” said Gautami


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