Rashmika Majumdar (a student at Asian College of Journalism, Chennai)
The Madambakkam Lake is surrounded by windowless structures. On the one hand, there are multi-storied apartments, super specialty hospitals and offices of multinational companies, most of them grey, glass buildings. But scattered around the banks of the lake are also single storied, grey and windowless tin shacks. The latter is populated by those who built the structures of modernity brick-by-brick.
Migrant labourers who have helped construct various multi-storeyed buildings and make several infrastructural projects a reality survive in deplorable conditions. Even as they struggle to stay in the organized sector, their working conditions imposed by their employers and contractors force them into the unorganized sector. This story is an investigation into the lives of migrant labourers as well as their families in Chennai.
In a labour colony on the Velachery-Tambaram Main Road near Global Hospital, more than 200 migrant construction labourers live with their families. Most of them are from Bihar, while some are from Uttar Pradesh, Orissa and West Bengal. The booming construction industry in Chennai enticed them out of their villages and pushed them into these vent-less shacks.
Anita Singh, 24, is from Gorakhpur, a mother of three, and the wife of a labour-turned-contractor. She sat as she played with her seven month-old daughter. Her two sons ran about bare-footed on the sand with other children of labourers.
“There is no school to send our kids to. We are uneducated but we want our kids to study. A doctor visits us but the medicines we get don’t work. There is no electricity for over 12 hours, it is difficult for the little ones in this heat. There is no safe place for them to play. They get hurt frequently while playing in the dust,” she said, enumerating the lack of facilities in the camp.
Babita Devi, another resident of the camp whose husband works as a mistry at a site near Global Hospital said that she misses her village in Bihar, which she left to accompany her husband to Chennai. “Sometimes, a family of five or six will need to share a tin shack which is not enough for even two people. We left our village to earn a living here. The money comes, but surviving here is also very difficult,” Devi said.
Most people at the camp have come from villages and suffer due to the absolute lack of basic facilities. The labour camp has several lanes of tin shacks adjacent to one other and a lane separating two rows is only wide enough for a person to walk. In these lanes, the residents dry their clothes, cook their food and sit outside to get some respite from the heat.
The son of another labourer-turned-contractor, Maidul Khan, whose father gets labourers for Hiranandani Constructions said that a contactor in the village will coordinate with the contractor here and arrange for labourers. Labourers who come with their families generally stay for a minimum of six months to a few years. The rest come for three to four months on a contractual basis. Pointing to a wad of cash in his pocket, he said, “Builders pay an advance to the contractors, so that in case the company isn’t able to make the monthly payment to the contractor on time, the contractor can use that fund to give the labourers their wages.” The builder pays 25 percent of the cost of every square-foot constructed to the contractor.
Labourers in the camp earn anywhere between 250 and Rs 350 per day, depending on their skills. They work not more than nine hours, which includes their lunch break. Khan, however added that some money is deduced from the labourers wage every month towards Provident Fund (PF), firewood that the labourers use to cook food and a medical check-up. He, however, added that he does not have any knowledge of workers ever getting back their PF money.
He also said that several labourers are extending their stay as they themselves want to become contractors. “If a worker can organise even six to ten workers, he can become a thekedaar (contractor). It has become a business and this camp has several contractors. Even I am a contractor,” said Khan, 18, who has just finished a computer course.
Another labourer-turned-contractor from Varanasi, Ram Ashray, said that he has been in the city for the last six years. “I just need to look at a building plan and I can instruct workers accordingly,” he boasted. He said that he was happy with the extra cash, but lamented the lack of a labour union. “If we form a union here, we won’t be hired. The companies are reluctant to give us work if they get to know we are part of a union,” Ashray lamented. He added that these workers were not registered under any government body.
According to a study conducted last year, there are over 10 lakh migrant workers out of which over 11 percent are in the construction industry. A survey done by the Centre for Vocational Education and Workforce Development showed that there were 1,21,771 migrant labourers in the construction industry in Chennai till June 2015.
E Ekambaram, Superintendent at the office of the Tamil Nadu Contsruction Workers Welfare board said that there were no special schemes for migrant labourers. Schemes for workers in the construction industry are supposed to cover both inter-state migrant workers and workers who migrate from different districts of Tamil Nadu. Mobile hospitals, transportation facility for the children of migrant workers to go to school, dormitories which can accommodate over 1000 workers and anganwadis for children are a few of the schemes which will slowly be implemented for construction workers in Chennai, Ekambaram said. He added that these schemes are being implemented currently in Thiruvallur, Kancheepuram, Edichur.
He said that only around 20,000 migrant workers had been registered under the welfare board and said that there was no alternative way the benefit of the schemes could reach the workers if they were not registered.
The problem of non-registration of workers and lack of unions is a double edged sword. R Singaravelu, All India President, Construction Workers Federation of India said that several employers don’t prefer to engage workers who are part of unions. Singaravelu said that while unions here are advised to recruit migrant labourers, many labourers avoid getting involved with unions. However, it is the unions which help workers get registered with the Tamil Nadu Construction Workers’ Welfare Board. But there were reports of some unions misusing the welfare funds, because of which the government bodies now don’t want to engage with unions, but want the workers to come directly to the labour office and register themselves.
“Workers will have to lose out on a day’s wage if go and get registered as this is a long process which requires a lot of documentation,” said Singaravelu.
If the workers don’t register themselves, they cannot avail themselves of the benefits of the schemes under the welfare board. Singaravelu said that the low amount of compensation may also be a reason why workers don’t see a point in getting themselves registered.
“The compensation given to the worker’s family in case of his death due to natural causes is just Rs 17,000, including his funeral expenses. An Indian worker is not bothered about what benefit his family will be getting if he dies. He is more concerned about earning a living and meeting family expenses while he is alive,” Singaravelu added.
Singaravelu said that about 90 percent of the migrant labourers in the construction industry are informal and work on a contract basis in private construction sites. He said the remaining ten percent are working in the formal construction industry with big construction companies and in government projects such as the ongoing Metro Rail works. But even in government sites, formal structures are bypassed these days. This was evident at the Little Mount Metro Station site which is nearing completion, where most workers come from West Bengal, Orissa and Bihar and all of them work 12 hour shifts. They are all on a contract which expires in two to three months.
Durjodhan Pradhan, 46 year-old-helper from Siliguri, West Bengal said, “The pay here is better than what I get back home where I worked as a labourer. I earn 350 rupees a day here, and save up everything I can and send the money back home. But working for so long is tiring. We only get Sundays off,” Pradhan said.
Responding to why workers were overworked, Lakhinder, a site-supervisor there said, “We have to complete the work in a time-bound manner. Workers have to put in 12 hours during the day, after which they are taken back to the camp in Guindy near the steel yard. Then the night shift labourers are brought and they also work for 12 hours,” he said.
Madhumita Dutta, an activist researcher with the Vettivar Collective in the city and has written extensively on labour issues said that in several cases of accidents or deaths at the work site, compensation has not reached labourers. “It is so difficult to find out what happens to the bodies of workers who die at the site. Even if the government does give compensation, a one-time payout is not the solution for families who lose their sole breadwinners. Often, workers borrow money just to come to the city as they can’t afford the travel and living expenses,” said Dutta. She added that the compensation mechanism was very arbitrary and when workers remain unregistered, the problem becomes even worse. “Workers don’t have any power to bargain for better wages or living conditions and are cramped up in deplorable tin huts. It is getting more difficult as workers are not allowed to join unions or fight for their rights,” Dutta added.
Issues of safety and security
A Mechanical, Electric and Plumbing Engineer, Bharath at the Saint Thomas Metro Station site said that the Chief Safety Engineer stationed at the South Zone Headquaters in Guindy regularly inspects every work site. He added that safety shoes, helmets and jackets are compulsory for every worker. “If the worker is doing casting work, he is given rubber gloves, a mask and goggles in addition to shoes, jackets and helmets,” he said.
The Chief Safety Engineer Gokulkannan said, “The on-site safety supervisor meets with us every morning and holds a toolbox meeting, where safety measures according to the work to be done that day are decided. We conduct checks twice on Monday and Saturday and in addition to this, the top management also conducts safety walks. When unsafe conditions are identified, they need to be resolved under 24 hours.”
He added that internal and external safety audits are conducted. The external audit is conducted by the Joint Director appointed under the Building and Other Construction Workers (BOCW) (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1996.
Even as several safety checks for the Metro Rail construction have been put in place, workers wear insufficient safety gear. Most shoes and jackets were found to be worn out, and the helmets were without vents which become extremely uncomfortable in the heat, which leads to workers taking them off.
Similar conditions were found at a private construction site at Ramanujan IT Park at Taramani where due to the worn out gear, workers are prone to injuries. Mohammad Amjul, 18, came to work at the site three months back. He injured the ring finger on his left hand while working, which has now turned blue. He said, “I got no first-aid or medicine for the injury. It hurts but I have to continue working.”
Workers at the site are also exposed to dust and are prone to frequent illnesses such as fevers and breathing problems. Amjul’s co-woorker, Bonita Gomang, 29, had been suffering from fever. “I am too weak and was not able to work because of the fever and I will not get the wage,” Gomang said. She came to Chennai from Parla village in Orissa leaving her two children behind. “My husband is a drunkard and would waste all the money on alcohol. He was not earning for us. So I had to take up whatever job was available and came here. I save up whatever I can and send it to my children who are still in school,” Gomang added. She lamented the lack of separate toilets for women at the labour camp where nearly 500 labourers, both migrant and local, reside.
“The toilet doors are all broken. Women here get up at 3 in the morning to use the toilet. There is no separate bathing area for women,” she added. While the men bathe in the open, there is no separate area for washing either. This is in violation of the BOCW Act which says that the temporary accommodation provided to the workers should have separate cooking place bathing, washing and lavatory facilities. The workers live at a walking distance from the site of construction. But it seems the workers’ temporary quarters were made at a dump yard. The tin huts are surrounded by high mounds of garbage and rubble.
When contacted, Project Manager of Tata Reality and Infrastructure Limited (which is undertaking the IT park’s construction) Shri Ram denied the presence of any labour camp associated to the Ramanujam IT Park near the site. He said that the workers we interviewed must be working in some other construction company as the workers employed for the IT park’s construction stay at Shollingannalur and are transported to the site daily by bus. However, workers interviewed were seen going in and out of the Ramanujam IT Park construction site which proved Ram’s claims wrong.
One of the reasons why health and safety laws are not followed by sites is because of weak implementation. This may be because the Directorate of Industrial Safety and Health which is responsible for the implementation health and safety regulations across the construction industry is severely short staffed. An Enforcement Officer, Gayathri, said that enforcement officers need to visit all sites in all the districts under their jurisdiction every six months to ensure that rules are being followed. “Five officers do the job of what, say, a hundred officers are supposed to be doing. Besides, we don’t have a vehicle at our disposal to conduct these checks,” she rued.
Besides site inspection, the enforcement officer is also responsible for handling labour cases, lawyers and evidence, when the Directorate receives any complaint of laws being flouted. A special squad consisting of a regular inspector, joint directors and other enforcement officers frequently check sites for violations.
Hope for education
Most children of migrant workers are deprived of education because of the lack of schools near the construction sites and the unavailability of instruction in their native language.
Rural Development Trust, a voluntary organisation has been arranging teachers who can speak Oriya and Telugu to teach children at Kalavakkam, Vaaniyanchavadi, Kelambakkam, Egattur, Navalur, Semmancheri and Sholinganallur.
Srivi Tadepalli, who interned with the organisation said that the local bodies are being encouraged to start the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan in the schools run by the Trust.
“They can either hire their own teachers who can speak the local language, or continue with the existing teachers. Parents are also happy to send their children even if they have to spend a little extra as their children are away from the hazardous construction sites and are learning new things while their parents are away,” Tadepalli added.
There is also a lack of special schemes for women and children at construction sites, which causes them to remain marginalised. Bernard D’Sami, a researcher at the Loyola Institute of Social Science Training And Research said that Confederation of Real Estate Developers’ Associations of India (CREDAI) had, in a conference in 2012, considered convincing builders under its membership to build schools for migrant labourers employed by them. However, there has no monitoring in this regard by CREDAI. When contacted over email for a comment, CREDAI did not respond.
Though various schemes exist under the Tamil Nadu Construction Workers’ Welfare Board and no discrimination vis-à-vis the disbursement of welfare measures exists, these schemes will not reach migrant labourers or their families unless they are registered under the board. Unions can bridge the gap between the labourers, who are often at the mercy of their employers’ and contractors’ whims and the welfare board which does not have enough force to enforce its rules. Instead of keeping unions away from the welfare disbursement mechanism, they should be integrated into the system so that a labourer does not have to miss a day’s wage in order to get registered. The lack of registered migrant labourers is no excuse for non-disbursement of the crores of rupees collected as cess from builders.