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Construction Workers

In India, 97% of the female construction workforce is informal. Workers are generally on short-term oral contracts or hired as day labor. This means that there is no secured continuity or regularity of women’s livelihoods. In Delhi, workers gather at select roadside junctions and wait for contractors to come pick them up for the day’s labor. As many construction workers are internal migrants from other parts of India, the risks of irregular work are even greater.

Read more on women in India’s informal construction industry
Women account for half of India’s construction workforce, but remain marginalized and concentrated at the bottom of the industry hierarchy. These women carry out backbreaking carry tasks that have been replaced by machines in developed countries, such as breaking bricks by hand or being head load carriers.

Discrimination in the construction industry is rampant. Women are forced to accept lower wages and if working in a family unit, are sometimes even denied wages. Women construction workers do not have access to training and cannot develop skills to improve their income. Furthermore, construction work sites are rarely sensitive to women’s needs. Women are forced to use exposed places as toilet facilitates, have no safe area for their children, and are not given maternity benefit payments.

SEWA Delhi and construction workers

Since 2005, determined construction workers have been organizing through SEWA Delhi, and extending membership, protection, and support to other women. SEWA Delhi links construction workers with the Delhi Building and Other Construction Workers’ Welfare Board (DBOCWWB) to register workers, secure social security entitlements and advocacy for legal recognition. SEWA Delhi also facilitates exposure visits for construction workers so that they can get a first-time look at other powerful women’s organizations and construction worker alliances around the country.

Major achievements:

  • In November 2013, SEWA Delhi and the Labor Commission jointly prepared a road map to register 5,000 construction workers.
  • DBOCWWB registration support to over 3,500 construction workers since 2008.
  • Since 2011, SEWA Delhi connected children of construction workers to educational scholarships worth Rs. 5,04,000
  • Through demonstration and government liaising, SEWA Delhi members forced the release of 246 passbooks from the Labor Commissioner’s office of Northeast districts of Delhi.

Key Activities:

Social Security Linkages

SEWA Delhi’s first step towards protecting the livelihoods of construction workers is to register them with the Delhi Building and Other Construction Workers’ Welfare Board (DBOCWWB). Through registration, workers become legally recognized and are issued a passbook-cum-identity card that is a necessary pre-condition for accruing social security benefits. SEWA Delhi linkage helps workers access life insurance, scholarship for their
children medical assistance, maternity benefit, accident relief, pension, and loan facilities.

Common Wealth Games 2010

The Common Wealth Games 2010 mobilized a huge force of construction workers in order to build key Delhi Metro stations, bridges, the stadium, and other infrastructure. Despite the huge amount of funding and profit related to the games, construction workers were offered
nothing more than minimal wages and atrocious working conditions.

SEWA Delhi was a core-member of the Common Wealth Games – Citizens for Workers, Women, and Children (CWG-CWC), in tandem with other trade unions and non-profit
organizations such as Mobile Crèches, Nirman Mazdoor Panchayat Sangam (NMPS), Centre for Advocacy and Research (CFAR) and Building and Wood Workers’ International (BWI).

SEWA Delhi participated in a press conference organised by the CWG-CWC on June 17, 2010. The members highlighted the problems they faced while getting the workers registered such as the unavailability of passbooks and claim forms and the slow process of the disbursements of benefits. SEWA Delhi women members shared provocative testimonies that shed light on the difficult experience of female workers within the construction industry.

Collaboration with Government Schools

government-schoolsWomen involved in construction work are painfully aware that their sons and daughters can end up in the same difficult employment. SEWA Delhi construction worker members are actively breaking this cycle of poverty by collaborating with government schools in order to help secure scholarships for their children.

SEWA Delhi helps members gain awareness of the government’s scholarship scheme, submit applications, and register. SEWA Delhi’s team also helps school authorities compile and verify lists of construction workers’ children. In 2013, SEWA Delhi connected children of construction workers to educational scholarships worth Rs. 2,64,000

Overcoming challenges

The registration process has involved various challenges for SEWA Delhi construction worker members. The officials at the Labour Commissioner and Deputy Labour Commissioner’s office are often unwilling to cooperate, and refuse meetings or deny existence of issues and
failures within the registration system.

In March 2009, SEWA Delhi members had submitted 200 registration forms to the Deputy Labour Commissioner of East and Northeast districts. The process remained frozen and officials’ only response was that passbooks were out of print. Six months later the passbooks arrived within the Labour Commissioner’s office, but SEWA Delhi was denied access to collect them on behalf of their members. A major reason SEWA Delhi collects the passbooks in bulk is to save its members time and potential loss of daily-wage.

In order to ensure that SEWA Delhi can collect passbooks in the future, a hunger strike with over 50 construction workers was held in front of the Deputy Labour Commissioner’s office on October 8, 2009. Workers agree to take these measures in order to facilitate smooth registration for other SEWA Delhi construction worker members in the future.

Through demonstration and government liaising, SEWA Delhi members forced the release of 246 passbooks from the Labour Commissioner’s office of Northeast districts of Delhi.

Public action to bring women into the spotlight

SEWA workers organised a dharna (protest) on Labour Day (May 1, 2009) near the Labour
Commissioner’s office at Shamnath Marg. The workers raised their voices against the dysfunctional status of the DCBOWWB and its inability to provide benefits. A group of construction workers led by Dr. Sanjay Kumar (Managing Trustee, SEWA Delhi and Director, SEWA Bharat) marched to the office of the Labour Commissioner to submit a memorandum demanding social security benefits including scholarships for children’s education, medical assistance, maternity benefit, accident relief and pension.

The Hindustan Times reported on the ineffectiveness of the DBOCWWB and the lack of initiative on the part of the Government to disburse any benefits to the workers. Following this report, the Chief Minister of Delhi held a meeting with various departments, including Health and Education and declared that the fund will be immediately deployed. She announced the disbursement of education scholarships to one-lakh children of construction workers through Government schools. It was also stated that 20 mobile dispensaries would be set up within a month to cater to these workers.

Exposure visits

Informal women construction workers are often poor and uneducated, but SEWA believes they can be empowered through trainings, exposure visits, and workshops. In 2012, SEWA Delhi construction workers active in advocacy visited SEWA Madhya Pradesh to learn about their organizing approach and relationship with the Madhya Pradesh Welfare Board.

The SEWA Delhi team found that the Board was working effectively; the workers had to contribute only Rs 10 every year to the Board unlike in Delhi where they were paying Rs 20. The mechanism of the disbursal of benefits was also timely and effective in Madhya Pradesh. The Delhi team has started working towards putting pressure on the Delhi Government to implement an effective mechanism of registration and disbursal of benefits based on the model of the Madhya Pradesh Welfare Board.


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