Endless pain of labour

Construction workers need safety gear, medical aid and wages, as per law. But when tragedies occur, all they get is lip sympathy

Endless pain of labour

Shiv Singh, 22, sits at the entrance of a construction site, his shins caked in dried cement, preparing to clean himself and leave. His face is grimy.

The pores on his skin are filled with fine sand. There is no trace of any safety gear like boots, gloves, et al, which are mandatory.

Building construction is an ever-booming industry in Bangalore. As of March 2012, nearly 1,19,000 residential units are under various stages of construction, besides the numerous commercial projects. For the citizens, it often seems like the entire City is either under construction or under renovation.

The images these sites bring to mind are all similar -- a storm of dust, rubble, wooden planks and partially completed roofs supported by a hundred sticks that look menacing.

It was about 11 am on July 4, at one such site at Mahadevapura. A loud thud startled some people and witnesses said the noise was followed by a whir of sirens as the emergency team arrived. A building had collapsed, three children were stuck in the debris but rescued just in time, and the body of a man was found in the evening after a prolonged rescue operation.

The next day, another body was found at the same site.

Ten days later, Shiv Singh is carefree, his employers careless. This was true about thousands more who had choked their lungs with dust and ate substandard food by a dirty bucket of water at their respective sites.

Standing by Singh at the site near the Malleswaram bridge is his colleague Shiva. He is operating a machine with his right hand, polishing tiles at what appeared like a plush residential complex, while covering his nose with his the left hand to prevent dust. He wasn’t wearing any safety gear. Nor was any of the workers at the site. Even the site did not have some mandatory requirements.

Health and safety requirements

The Contract Labour Central Rules, 1971, specify various health measures to be adopted by employers for the safety of workers at construction sites. This includes the provision of first aid such as sterilised dressings, bottle containing a solution of iodine, and a snakebite lancet to name a few. 

Projects need to have in place several measures for the safety of workers. Separate walkways with barricades and roadways for vehicle movement, access to upper floors with step ladder and railing and fall protection with nets, temporary electrical overhead lines for lighting system and precautions in case of soil collapse are a few measures that need to be adopted. But a walk along most of the construction sites reveal a harsh reality. There are few or none of these provisions; workers are left unattended even when sick at many places. But buildings come up adding to the City skyline.

“Oh yeah, safety gear. We know about it,” Singh says innocently, adding that his company wants to provide them with all that. Nothing of that sort is in sight though, even as the building is close to completion.

Shiva says: “We use it when we are on bigger projects. This is a small place and we do not need it.” They know the repercussions of ratting on their bosses.

Aruna, a supervisor at another construction site, claims they have everything in place even as one of his workers, carrying cement, walks on a narrow patch of land along a 15-foot pit dug to lay the foundation. “You are not allowed to click pictures here,” Aruna says, refusing to speak. This place does not even have a labour colony.

Gopal Gowda, an office-bearer of the Centre for Indian Trade Union (CITU), points out that there are many measures builders and contractors do not pay attention to. “The problem is grave and it is sad the governments take little interest in sorting this out despite so many deaths being reported at such sites.”

Gowda was referring to the children who were reported dead after falling into pits or sumps at construction sites. “If there is a proper colony and valid shifts, children can stay there. There can also be somebody to take care of them. But in the absence of both, they stray around the chambers of death,” Gowda says.

A few kilometres from Singh and Shiva’s work site, behind the (Mysore Sandal) soap factory, an 18-month-old girl is following her slightly older brother right under the unmanned pulley lift. And Prem, the site engineer, smokes carelessly beside her. Draw his attention to the baby girl, and he screams: “Hey, whose children are those. Why do you always create problems for us.” But nobody responds. He blames the construction workers. “They do not care about their children, they never leave them behind at the colony,” he says.

Given the size of the project, some workers said they had a colony. But trade unions argue that the working hours for such people need to be regulated. “Most of these people work for more than 12 hours. Where is the time to take care of their children or even themselves,” All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) general secretary H V Anantha Subba Rao argues.

Trade unions have demanded that the government fix Rs 8,000 as minimum monthly wage in the unorganised sector, apart from raising the dearness allowance to four paise for every point of increase in the consumer price index. Workers have also been struggling to get basic benefits such as pension, gratuity, provident fund, medical facilities, maternity allowance, education facility for children, health insurance and housing, etc.

A nationwide protest on July 10 demanded inclusion of the unorganised sector under the Employees Provident Fund Act to bring in apt pieces of legislation that will see the end of ‘contractorisation’ and so on. Unions also want the governments to say ‘no’ to outsourcing, to regularise contract workers in a phased manner, pay wages /other benefits to contract workers on a par with regular workers in the industry.

They also want the governments to remove ceilings on payment of bonus and provident fund and increase the quantum of gratuity, besides raising the minimum pension to Rs 3,000 a month under the EPF and provide it to all workers in unorganised sector. “They should fix a statutory minimum wage at Rs 10,000 per month, make coverage universal across the country, including unorganised workers,” Rao said.

But organising this class of workers has been a big failure. Given the nature of their job and their demographics, most people remain migrants.

WORKPLACE SAFETY

*  Providing safe means of access with ‘safety infrastructure’ in place

*  Taking precautions to avoid any danger from collapse of any building

*  Handling of explosives only by competent persons

*  Having separate walkways and drive ways to construction sites

*  Taking precautions while raising or lowering loads

*  Providing adequate and suitable lighting facilities

*  Taking precautions to prevent inhalation of dust

*  Safeguarding all machinery and fencing all dangerous equipment

*  Safe handling of equipment operated by compressed air

*  Taking precautions in case of fire

*  Taking measures during stacking or unstacking material

*  Limiting the weight lifted or moved by workers

*  Providing safe transport to workers

*  Providing means of rescue in case of drowning

*  Taking steps to prevent danger from live electric wires and apparatus

*  Providing safety nets, sheets and belts to ensure safety of workers

*  Maintaining standards with regard to scaffolding, ladders, stairs, etc

*  Taking precautions with regard to pile driving, concrete work, excavation work, etc

*  Providing health facilities to workers




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