“Why are no women workers working on the Metrorail Construction sites?” was the query with which a group of women construction workers from the US started a discussion with women workers from Chennai. A group of 12 women construction workers along with a researcher and a safety and health inspector were on a visit of India, to understand the conditions of work for women construction workers here. This is the first such delegation to visit India. After visiting Mumbai, Pune and Delhi, the delegation visited Chennai on the 28th, the 29th and the 30th of January. Having visited the Metro Rail construction sites and other major residential sites in Chennai, they met for a discussion with women workers of Nirman Mazdoor Panchayat Sangh. The discussion revolved around access to work for women, the conditions of work, inequalities in wage scale and rank, as well as occupational health and safety issues.
One of the first questions that team members raised to the Tamil workers was why there were no women workers present at the Chennai Metro construction site they had visited, despite the fact that the site employs thousands of workers. R. Geetha, the leader of NMPS, responded that the larger construction sites of Chennai employ migrant workers from other states. “This is also the reason why there are few women in these large sites,” she added.
On the topic of migrants, the American workers also mentioned the difficulties in organizing them and the problems migrants face because of not being unionized. The issue of occupational safety and health came up in this context. “Union workers receive separate training sessions on laws, health and safety protocols, but migrants don’t get these sessions and so they don’t know their rights. Often they don’t even know their employer, so the accident rates among the migrants are greater than among unionized workers,” said Kathleen, a worker from Boston.
The Unions in the US also organize apprenticeship programmes for workers, including women. Here workers are trained in various trades like plumbing, electrical work, masonry, and carpentry. Once workers finish the program and receive certification, they can work on sites where unionized workers are employed. “Where we are employed, there are no non-unionized workers. So there is not enough interaction with migrant workers at the site,” said another US delegate.
Speaking about the union’s role in health and safety, the American inspector who had accompanied the delegation said, “Unions run safety sessions to their workers, where they advise them on the safety procedures, the equipment they must wear, and their legal rights. The site also has first-aid equipment, including defibrillators. The unions train workers to use their kits so that we can be sure that immediate help is available in the event of a situation. The workers also can call a special emergency number or the local ambulance service for medical emergencies. These things are possible only because of unions. Where the unions are active, the safety inspectors are more proactive. Without unions the inspection system will also falter.”
Wondering again about the role of women in construction, the delegates asked if there were any skilled women workers in the construction sector. To this, one of the Tamil workers, who had been trained in masonry, discussed her learning trajectory. She is a wife of a mason, and she had accompanied him to work as a construction labourer. When NMPS had organized a training session for women, she had participated and gained skills in masonry. She was then employed by her husband as a mason, but only paid the wage of an unskilled labourer. After the Tsunami, when NMPS along with another NGO decided to construct temporary houses for the fisher families who had lost their homes, she was at the forefront of the project, completing the construction of 62 houses. This experience established her as a mason. She continues to take up work, even after her husband passed away a few years ago, but she can’t find many jobs because no one is willing to pay a mason’s wage to a women.
This brought the discussion to discrimination of women in the construction sector. Marcus, another US delegate, said that it was not too different in the US. Though there is no discrimination in wage, the number of women in the industry is very low.
R Geetha talked about the need to find jobs for women and suggested the idea of construction workers’ cooperatives, which could enable women to get a fair wage and also a scope to use their skills. Susan Moir, the researcher and union organizer who had organized this delegation, said that it was essential for the women to eventually find jobs, since otherwise the training would be useless. She also said that their delegation had been raising the slogan, “Hire locals; hire women,” (locals in their context means inner city workers as opposed to suburban workers). “We picket the biggest employer in a city, and once we get them then things change to a new normal, and other employers also begin to hire more women workers,” she explained. Many workers, including R Geetha, agreed with her and they felt a protest before Metro Rail Company would force the company to hire locals and women in fair share.
The discussion came to a close with a rendition of “We shall overcome” in both English and Tamil. You can read more about the delegation in this article (http://labortribune.com/local-tradeswoman-going-on-first-u-s-tradeswomen-delegation-to-india/). You can also read their reports and notes here (www.tradeswomenbuild.org ).