Fading of the construction jobs have become a known phenomenon in India. Construction jobs had surged several times over a decade ago — from only 17 million in 1999-2000 to 25.6 million in 2004-05 and 50.3 million in 2011-12. It became a bigger part of the jobs pie — from claiming 3.2% of the workforce in 1983 to 10.6% in 2011-12. In those boom years, out of every five non-farm workers, one worked in construction.
That story has stalled in the years since. The latest periodic labour force survey shows the growth rate is sharply down, and the sector remains stagnant with 54.3 million jobs in 2017-18, says economist Ravi Srivastava, who has studied the sector. In the last six years, barely four million jobs have been added despite all the public investment in toilets and homes. Private investment has clearly slumped.
“This has implications for manual unskilled labourers who are deeply distressed in agriculture, but have nowhere to go. Earlier, those leaving farming got jobs in construction: their wages rose, consumption rose, and poverty fell. Now, the real wage rate has collapsed for both regular and casual workers,” says economist Santosh Mehrotra.
Demonetisation struck a sharp blow to construction and real estate, affecting the number and pace of projects. “I was out of work for months. Kaam abhi bhi dheela chal raha hai,” says Banwari Lal, a mason, as he smooths out a window ledge in a house he is building. “Sometimes I work 15 days, sometimes 20, sometimes it’s hard to find work — there is no certainty.”
Things are more difficult for migrant workers who go from project to project, living in camps on the site, or on urban outskirts. There is a chain of contractors, sub-contractors and sardars who either bring them in. Usually, the thekedar is known to the workers, often they pay an advance to their families. Given this itinerant life, too many children are kept out of school, says Sunita of Mobile Creches, an NGO that provides daycare for construction workers.
There has been an array of laws that applies to these jobs; the Building and Other Construction Workers Act, 1996, mandated welfare boards to look into safety, insurance, children’s education, medical and maternity benefits and so on, to be covered through a cess levied on employers. In 2006, the Supreme Court started monitoring its implementation. In Dwarka, Sunita Sharma of the Nirman Mazdoor Panchayat Sangh, which started in 2005, is helping renew registrations, and women trickle in now and then, for help with papers, to access their entitlements.
But the Centre’s new labour code is set to subsume this system. Unions are jittery about the lack of clarity on safety, and the fact that workers will have to contribute towards their own social security, rather than employers doing so through a cess. “Construction workers do not have regular work through the month and cannot afford to pay 12.5% of their monthly earnings for welfare,” says Subhash Bhatnagar of the Nirman Mazdoor Panchayat Sangh. What’s more, he says, 4-crore-plus workers have registered under the 36 welfare boards. “If these are dismantled and a new system is set up, then these benefits will be set back by another decade or so.”
Even the settled workers are finding it harder to get by these days. “Earlier, Rs 100 would mean we could eat and drink and still have some money left over, now that isn’t possible. Even Rs 1,000 means less now. There isn’t enough to make ends meet, to pay rent and cooking gas and food,” says Sampat Ram, a carpenter. Some of them don’t have a choice but to work “jab tak haath pair chalein”, they say, describing a woman over 65, a widow who had no choice but to carry on with hard labour at the site.
Source: ET Realty