25,000 kids at construction sites; their lives at risk

25,000 kids at construction sites; their lives at risk

For most unskilled labourers coming to cities for employment, construction sites are a source of easy employment and at the same time hazardous.

Families that travel to cities such as Bangalore, either trying to escape a severe drought or simply seeking livelihood often get jobs at construction sites, but women and children with them face harrowing situations.

Women are the bottom most rung of the ladder when it comes to employment. As labourers, they  are hired to carry bricks, cement and mostly do any manual labour, while men are preferred for any work that requires a measure of skill. But for women, the trouble begins there. If the families are unfortunate enough to be camping at the site itself, then something as simple as attending the call of nature can be a daunting and humiliating task.

“Women are paid less than men for the same amount of work and they also have to take care of the family. Often, the so-called houses are just tents, there are absolutely no toilets, no school for children or any kind of safety. They are just left to fend for themselves,” says Geeta Menon of Stree Jagruthi Samiti.

For children, the situation is no better. There are an estimated 25,000 children living at construction sites in the City today. Most of them do not receive any services that they decidedly deserve, whether it is education, health or protection. A report prepared in 2008 on the protection of rights of children of construction labourers in the City painted a dismal picture.

The report prepared with inputs from several NGO pointed out a situation that was described as ‘pathetic.’ Organisations working with construction labourers spoke about workers retained at the sites and not allowed to meet their children; situations where children were huddled in small rooms each night and allowed to speak or see their parents only through a peep hole. Instances of sexual exploitation of girls, employment of children themselves at the sites, lack of basic amenities such as drinking water were all brought out. 

The recommendations included policies for providing drinking water, housing, ration card and voter ID cards. The simplification of registration of construction workers, whether it was the Construction Workers Welfare Board, or just to obtain ID cards, was also suggested. Suggestions were also made to strengthen healthcare by getting Auxillary Nurse Midwife (ANM) or Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHA) to visit these sites.

Setting up of anganwadis with extended timings, builders setting aside money for the education of these children and strict protection against abuse were also recommended.

Four years down the line, the situation is not encouraging. P Lakshapathi, the Executive Director of Association for Promoting Social Action (APSA), who was involved in preparing the 2008 report, feels the situation has actually become worse. “As construction activities have picked up tremendously in the last few years, the competition has also increased. This has led to cutting down costs and has led to exploitation and poor services,” he says. 

While the construction boom is still in place, so is the steady stream of migrants making a beeline for the state. Whether it is North Karnataka, Rajasthan, Orissa or Bihar, there is no dearth of unskilled labourers. As a result, supply has far outstripped the demand. In such a situation, there is no way that these labourers will get a better deal, says Lakshapathi. 

According to him, a practice that is commonplace these days is the practice of sub-contracting, indicating that the work is outsourced by the builder to a contractor, who in turn outsources the job to someone else and so on. 

With such a system, there is no one to take responsibility or the initiative to provide any facilities, including toilets, drinking water or safe area, for children. 

“Some builders may have a creche facility, but its mostly an eyewash as the person supervising the children is almost never trained; there is no play material or ventilation or anything to indicate that children can be in a safe and protected environment. It is mostly a makeshift shed and children are assembled in the place and left to their own devices,” he says.

A matter of serious concern is the sexual exploitation of girls at the sites. Most incidents go unreported and if the parents are aware of what is going on, they are scared to report the incident to the authorities. Children under the age of six are often found malnourished.

The State government, after being prodded by child rights activists, is making a conscious effort to conduct health camps this month with special focus on children at construction sites.

Ensuring that these children are enrolled into anganwadis is still a distant reality. The situation is far from getting better. Contractors hiring these people prefer unmarried migrants so that they do not have to provide any amenities. However, some prefer families as the contractor can be sure the worker settled in a site will not abruptly leave for a better pay.

In either case, it always benefits the contractor and not the labourer.

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