Crores of construction workers reel under misery even as Centre takes measures that go against their interests
About 28 crore people are related to the construction industry, the largest after agriculture, as per Construction Workers Federation of India (CWFI), the nodal body of the workers
Pawan Mondal (28), a resident of Dakshin Barasat in South 24 Parganas district, is a bricklaying mason by profession. In the lockdown period of the COVID-19 second wave, Mondal along with his two sons and his wife are running from pillar to post to get some benefit under the cess fund meant for welfare of the construction workers. But he has had no luck.
On the other hand, if Mondal speaks of khoraki (extra payment) to the building promoter under whom he works, the employer reminds him of his status as a daily wage earner. In fact, lakhs of construction sector workers, all registered and bona fide, have appealed to the governments to help them during the lockdown period. However, they have received no positive response from either the Centre or the state governments so far.
Construction Workers Federation of India (CWFI), the nodal body of the workers, has written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and to the chief ministers of all the states and Union territories to help the construction workers during the lockdown period and provide them with a relief of Rs 5,000 from the cess fund meant for construction workers’ welfare in the country. The fund is called Building & Other Construction Workers’ Welfare Cess.
Interestingly, only states like Delhi, Maharashtra and Kerala have complied with providing Rs 5,000 as interim relief to the construction workers and to stand beside the interstate migrant workers.
Meanwhile, the Central government has lowered the scope of the cess collection from houses costing up to 50 lakh rupees, which employs contractors to build the houses.
The arbitrary decision is scheduled to affect over 4.5 crore construction workers of the country, according to government estimates (according to CWFI it is 6.5 to 7 crore). The construction industry employs the largest number of workers after the agriculture sector in the country, according to Debanjan Chakraborty of CWFI.
Speaking to Newsclick, he said that the move of the Central government in lessening the scope of the cess collection would affect a huge number of construction workers in the country and will be detrimental to their interests. The cess fund used to carry out a huge array of welfare activities for the construction workers would now face financial constraints, he said.
Most of the houses in the construction industry along with repair and maintenance work fall under the bracket of Rs 10 to 50 lakhs. To exempt such houses from cess collection could derail the construction workers’ welfare schemes in the country.
Interestingly, while in the earlier version of the Building and Other Construction Workers’ Welfare Cess Act, the role of the unions in registering the names of the construction workers was well accepted, now in a new move, the Central government has said that only the contractors can register the names of the construction workers within the welfare schemes. This allows contractors to strike off the names of bona fide construction workers.
Secondly, out of the 4.5 crore construction workers, only 5.5 per cent are working with big contractors like L&T, Shapoorji Pallonji, Thapar Constructions etc. The rest of them work under a scheme, which can be dubbed a mason-cum-contractor, in small scale projects with no license or formalities associated with them.
Elaborating on this system, Debanjan Chakraborty said that these senior masons gather other masons and work together under promoters of housing units or at civil residential buildings.
This would mean ouster of over 90 per cent of the bona fide construction workers who work under small scale projects (compared to big contractors) from the welfare funds and whose name was enrolled in the government list by the unions.
In another development, making a change to the Act, the Central government has also expunged the segment where interstate migrant labourers were said to be paid stipulated wages plus 50 per cent of minimum wages of the state as an add–on money so that they can return home. “Changing the labour codes is highly detrimental to them,” Chakraborty commented.
After the COVID-19 situation led to raw material shortage in many places, except in large scale public sector projects in irrigation and power plants in Himachal Pradesh and Punjab, construction work has ceased and inter-state migrants are again trying to return home.
Moreover, the price of building material has increased manifold amid the pandemic and due to a high production cost, promoters have stopped working on a majority of their sites.
Chakraborty pointed out that about 28 crore people, considering a family size of four people for the 7 crore workers, were related to the construction industry, the largest after agriculture. “However, even after writing to the Prime Minister nothing has come up. Even the West Bengal government has not arranged for payment of money through the welfare fund to its construction workers,” he said.
With reduced investment in infrastructural projects at the moment and scant attention to them from either the Central or state government, construction workers are looking at a bleak and uncertain future at the moment.
Views are personal
(First published by Newsclick. Courtesy: The Leaflet)