Build A Radical Movement of Construction Labour
India's 50 million construction workers are the builders of modern India. They build roads, highways, railway tracks, airports and ports that connect the vast sub-continent and make India one country, spanning all its distances and diversities.
Construction workers are the backbone of the economy as they create the infrastructure necessary for industrial growth. In a globalising economy, it is they who are constructing the new economic zones, the IT cities, the call centres and mega malls that are creating new forms of wealth today. It is they who are laying the cables for a rapidly expanding country-wide telecommunications network.
Yet, these construction workers, who are creating foundation for the new economy are living in semi-bonded conditions with low pay and insecure and unsafe working conditions. Almost one-third of these workers are women and children.
A Gateway to Urban Employment
The government is the largest principal employer for construction workers as it undertakes large scale construction and building work. It is responsible for building the nation's infrastructure and also for its maintenance. But, the government projects are being handed over to private players and we also witness PPP (Public Private Partnership) and BOT (Build Operate and Transfer) models in numerous cases. The role of government’s own agencies is being restricted and limited.
Irregular Employment – Blurred Relationship
Workers are employed through the agencies of labour contractors. This contractor is the link between the principal employer and the worker. But, he basically represents the interests of the builders.
There are four methods of recruitment of labour –
1. Direct recruitment of workers by the company of the builder,
2. Recruitment of workers from rural areas through labour contractors,
3. Recruitment of workers from city slums through labour contractors,
4. Recruitment of workers from marketplace (naka / chowk) by principal employers and through contractors or Mistry’s.
Market Driven Wages
Irregular and erratic payment or non-payment and under payment of wages is one of the major issues being confronted by the workers. The contractors orally promise a wage when they recruit workers and once the work starts, they delay the payment, pay less than what was promised, and often do not pay at all. Breach of contract or no legal contract, less wages, unsafe conditions, corruption, loot, and cheating are quite rampant in the industry. Such practices that are considered to be a part of rogue capitalist tendencies are being witnessed even in corporate companies and MNCs in the industry.
Women and Children in the Construction Industry
The work in construction sites is invariably divided along gender lines. The types of work that men do are labelled as 'skilled' work and fetch higher wages, than the work women are allowed to do. Women are restricted to head-loading and 'beldari' jobs that involve fetching and carrying of materials and this type of work is labelled as 'unskilled' work. Naturally, 'unskilled' work is paid lesser than 'skilled' work which is understandable. But, we witness a huge disparity in wages for men and women performing same and similar kind of work.
Women who wait in the chowks or naka often find themselves leered at by prospective employers and subject to various indignities. Younger women hired through contractors are more vulnerable to sexual harassment. Sexual exploitation at work site is a regular phenomenon and no protection is offered against it in any manner till date.
Migrants and Bondage in Construction Sector
Conditions of Bondage
This is an area where little data exists. However, it is self-evident that there are rural communities that are particularly vulnerable and most likely to accept a raw deal from the contractor or employer, particularly because wage labour opportunities in the rural sector have been shrinking in recent years. More so because of drastic cuts in allocation for MGNREGA. Often, they are hired from distant places and become completely dependent on the contractor because they do not speak the local language and consequently are cut off from the local population.
In several states, migrant workers face the apathy of locals as they are perceived as taking over local jobs. The hostility makes their situation even more vulnerable. In fact, such a possibility of hostility among migrants and locals was orchestrated by BJP to create fear and hate mongering among migrants by circulating fake videos of some stray incident in Tamil Nadu
COVID-19: Impact on Construction Workers
The Pandemic and Job Loss
COVID-19 in India also showed that alongside the service sector, construction has been the worst affected sector. The decline in employment was also very sharp. In absolute terms, 34 million workers lost their jobs in the first quarter.
The mass reverse exodus proved that if one was unable to work, then there was nothing left for a migrant in a city, and they had no social community to fall back on.
It is also symptomatic of the exclusion of the migrant population from all social safety mechanisms. It is further unacceptable that the welfare of migrants was not mentioned even once in any of the directives issued by State agencies until it became impossible to avoid the videos and pictures of large groups of migrants walking in deplorable conditions.
The Construction Workers and the Labour Laws
A Journey Towards Enactment of 1996 Act –More Than A Decade Long Struggle
Owing to the relentless workers struggle, Tamil Nadu had been a pioneer in forming a welfare board for manual labourers, including construction workers, well before the BOCW act was enacted at all India level.
One of the few strong, independent unions in the construction sector, the Tamil Nadu Construction Workers Union (TMKTS), organised a national seminar in Delhi in November 1985 to discuss the situation of workers and the lack of legal protection.
In late 1989, around 4 lakhs signatures were collected from workers demanding a comprehensive law for the construction sector. In March 1990, 20,000 workers marched to the Parliament. AICCTU also vigorously participated in the movement with full spirit and enthusiasm. The Indian Parliament enacted "The Building and Other Construction Workers (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1996" and "The Building and Other Construction Workers Welfare and Cess Act, 1996".
Construction Workers and New Codes
Implication of Labour Codes on Construction Workers
The present central government has been strongly pushing through four anti-worker labour codes that repeal a number of existing hard-won labour laws and labour rights.
The dilution of rights of workers and duties of employers in the Code will only worsen the situation. A concerted effort must be launched by construction workers unions, and other unions in solidarity, to ensure these Codes are not notified.
The Present Day Challenges
Redefining the Role ofTrade Unions
There is a tendency to look at trade unions as agencies to get more. The demands for better wages and facilities continue to dominate at the expense of other considerations. In other words, economism dominates the trade union scene.
Radical unions do not approve of pure bread and butter approach of trade unions. Workers back unions which make higher demands and achieve them. All trade unions have to fall in the line. Non-monetary issues get neglected. Some trade unions care more for the interest of their members and less for the interests of the working class, as a whole.
Under these circumstances to fight against economism and fight for social transformation, All India Central Council of Trade Unions (AICCTU) was formed and started to organise workers in different sectors as a class based vanguards with focus on class struggle for social transformation.
Some Major Struggles
AICCTU-affiliated Building Mazdoor Union at Patna organised a large number of construction workers during the foundation of AICCTU in 1989.
On 27 - 29 June 2008, the foundation conference of AICCTU affiliated All India Construction Workers Federation (AICWF) was held at Patna, attended by delegates from 10 states.
The 2nd national conference of AICWF was held at Ramlila Maidan in New Delhi on 26th November 2012, followed by a massive procession and demonstration before the Parliament next day.
3rd National conference of AICWF held at Ranchi (Jharkhand) on 30th September 2016 with central slogans "Struggle against anti working class policy of Modi led BJP government" and "Against the process of de-unionisation".
Changing Faces of the Movement
The Modi-led BJP government and also the governments at the states are more geared up towards facilitating the bourgeoisie/employers by providing the ‘ease of doing business’, while the workers’ lives are being made much more difficult. In such a situation, we are bestowed with the task of making construction workers movement a political movement that can challenge the powers that be, and that can secure welfare as a benefit provided by the government and the employers. The need of the hour is to develop construction workers as an independent political force, as an independent political movement.
The Class Struggle Centric Union
As most of our work is concentrated in rural or semi-urban areas and where most of the construction workers are engaged in smaller size constructions and also under some small players like mistrys, the scope for any class struggle in true sense, becomes much more limited. In such a backdrop, we need to self-introspect our own work and strive to make the construction workers movement a class struggle centric one. Making our union a class struggle centric organization is the first step towards changing the face of the movement, as a whole.
Reorientation of Construction Labour Movement
Under these circumstances, trade unions need to ponder over reorienting the direction of the construction labour movement. Politicisation of workers and concept of class struggle need to be given a greater emphasis. The construction labour movement in the country needs to be reoriented to confront the changing realities in wake of anti-labour Codes, dismantling of welfare boards and the emerging new challenges.
Some points on which the construction and building workers movement shall focus on:
At the level of construction workers union activities…
• The construction workers unions shall recruit workers to the union first and involve them in trade union activities. Union First, Board next should be a slogan of top priority.
• Assisting workers to get them enrolled in welfare board, as they are members of the union, may be made as a secondary activity.
• In case of any corruption, misappropriation, diversion of funds, refusal to disburse benefits by authorities or others, the union should organize mass of construction workers to fight against it, instead of relying mainly on petitioning through individual workers to get the benefits. In fact, this struggle should be made the primary aspect of our functioning at trade union level.
Aspects of Class Struggle
• Struggles against the state for the expansion of welfare benefits and for strict collection of 3 percent of construction expenses as cess.
• Struggles against the nexus of real estate mafia, bureaucrats, builders and contractors.
• Struggles to hold the owners of the construction, builders and contractors responsible for any death or disablement while on duty or otherwise and also for the welfare. The owners of the construction and builders shall be held responsible as principal employers.
Build a Radical Movement of Construction Workers
In the backdrop of new Labour Codes, particularly the Social Security Code, construction workers movement is at a crossroads. When construction welfare board is replaced by general state welfare boards as perceived by the Social Security Code, the present practice of unions is bound to face a challenge of relevance if welfare board centric practice continued. The trade unions and the workers movement have to reinvent themselves and their role in the changing scenario.
Modi led BJP government and the RSS are spreading politics of hate and are using construction workers as a pawn in their design to communally divide the country. The fascist forces in power are using construction workers hailing from downtrodden communities and ridden with poverty, as foot soldiers in their hate filled war mongering against minorities.
In such a backdrop, construction workers movement is bound to march on a path of struggle for their rights and benefits and against the communal design of the fascist forces in the coming years.
AICWF and AICCTU will be in the forefront of workers struggles to snatch back the rights and benefits for workers and has resolved to defeat the black fascist forces of reaction and obscurantism.
AICWF and AICCTU resolve to build a radical movement of construction workers and to build a new, egalitarian society.
• Fight for Decent Wages, Regular Work, Social Security and Dignified Life!
• Fight to Reclaim our Rights!
• Let us turn 2023 into a year of waves of militant struggles!
• Let us Resolve to Defeat the Modi Regime in the 2024 elections!
An abridged version of the booklet simultaneously published and released in English, Hindi and Tamil at the all India conference of the All India Construction Workers Federation