Poor living conditions of construction labourers

The local construction industry cannot do much about the poor living conditions of migrant labourers who work in the construction industry in Bengaluru. Reason: It has no control over them. It is the labour contractor who has a say on how and where labourers have to live, thus making the latter vulnerable. Some live in slums, some team up to stay packed in small hutments. A lucky few manage concrete structures.

Builder and real estate representative, Suresh Hari says that things have changed with regard to supply and control of labour in the construction industry. He explains, “Now, they come in big groups, not any longer as individuals. A contractor takes care of finding the labourers and then getting them to travel to Bengaluru and then defining where they should stay or reside. We from the builders side cannot exercise any control because labourers are beholden to the contractors and they work according to the contractors’conditions.”

This, he says, is one reason why builders are not aware where and how labourers live and in what conditions. “We cannot take any step to improve their daily living conditions because of this. It is assumed that the contractor who brought them will do that. Since we have no control, our interaction with labourers is very specific - pay them for the work after which they approach the contractor to address any problems they may have. Today’s labourers are not our employees in the technical sense of the term.”

The labourers come from North India, North Karnataka and Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. They are all taken to temporary shelters built on grounds or open spaces behind apartment complexes. For instance, a group coming from Bihar is put up behind a complex in Sarjapur.

The contractor is the one who has taken the decision for them to stay there, not the builder. Since the contractors know that the work is temporary, the shelters made available are also temporary. A group may stay for three, six or nine months. It would not be affordable to build permanent residential structures for the migrants.

According to builder Nagaraj Reddy, migrant labourers these days came in groups to do specific work and then get back immediately. This is true for all groups - North Indian, North Karnataka and Tamil Nadu and AP. “Since piece work has gone up now, you cannot expect labourers to stay on, for say, two years. They want to save money instead of paying rents for long periods when they may have no work and would therefore stay in shelters that may not be good from a residing point of view.”

Since these labourers are not directly employed by builders, Reddy says “we will not be able to extend any benefits.” Builders then interact with the contractors and settle everything fairly and objectively. “This has come about because of the rise of piece work. We are thus facing a shortage of labour in the State, which was not the case 10 years ago.”

One consequence of the piece work is fragmentation of labourers’ residential space. “Some groups may stay in Peenya region, some others in Sarjapur, others in Whitefield and some others close to Mysuru road. There is no one central place where they reside. For example, painters from Bihar stay at Nagarabhavi, while carpenters from Odisha stay at Kamakshipalya on Magadi Road,” explains Reddy.

An Odiya carpenter Bheem Patel has this to say: “We take up a small room and five of us stay together to cut rental costs. When we have work for a year or so, we manage a rental contract for that time. In case we don’t have so much work, we tell the owner that we would be around for a few months, head back home and return when we get contracts. That suits the owner too and he could let out the room for another group to stay.”

This is a circular experience - one group exits, another comes in. Adds Patel, “We stay in marginalised areas within the city because rents are manageable. We will not be able to stay in mainstream Seshadripuram for instance, but closer to the working class locality like Okalipuram, where rents are lower.”

Given the nature of their work, which is piecemeal, and the living conditions, their homes could be classified as neo-slums, which are made of concrete and bricks, and not with thatched material. These neo-slums offer very little physical space to reside. But most labourers have no choice. They have to call it home!

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