How govt policies can be strengthened to benefit migrant construction workers

The process for construction workers to qualify for welfare schemes under the Building and Other Construction Workers (BOCW) welfare boards is tedious and challenging.
Migrant workers
Migrant workers

In the second of the two-part series, Pranay Manjari Samal explores the state of affairs of the governmental policies that impact our migrant construction workers. It is important to note that the government collects cess from construction companies to ensure the welfare of these workers – but they forget about the Rs. 31,000 crores lying in the Building and Other Construction Workers (BOCW) Board that remain unutilised. One can’t help but wonder if the government was waiting for a pandemic to happen to distribute this money. The larger issue at hand is that there are more than six crore workers, but only 3.5 crore workers are registered under BOCW.

Read the first part here.

As per the Building and Other Construction Workers (BOCW) Welfare Cess Act, 1996, any construction project costing beyond Rs 10 lakh must give up to 1% of construction cost to the BOCW welfare boards for the welfare of construction workers. BOCW boards are state government controlled. So, rules of cess collections, benefits, schemes for workers, eligibility criteria to be a registered member vary drastically from state to state.

When most of these state boards are functional, why are the funds underutilised or lying unutilised? The documentation process is not labourer-friendly like any other welfare scheme and there is usually no local support. Language barrier (imagine an Odia worker registering the form in Kannada in Bengaluru) is another issue. Overall, it is a very tedious process to qualify for the eligibility of welfare schemes under the board.

Many times, the contractor receives the cards of the construction workers who registered with the BOCW board after they leave the site. So the workers are also not aware that they are registered. What use is the card when it is given to the contractor after workers leave the site and, in most instances, even the registered state?

How many migrants do we have?

As per media reports, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman confirmed that 3.5 crore workers have registered with BOCW boards. But, as per the Government of India’s official Invest India website, the total number of workers in the construction sector is 5.1 crore. Labour unions claim to have 6 crore construction workers in the country. Going by the 12th five-year plan report that had estimated 4.1 crore workers in 2011, today’s figure as per labour unions data – 6 crore – is highly plausible. In such a case, 2.5 crore construction workers are denied any kind of benefit declared by the central or state governments.

Every state has a different waiting period for a construction worker to be eligible to apply for the benefits. As they frequently change cities/states, workers end up registering again under a new state BOCW board after waiting for the required window period. This is a double-edged sword; on one hand a migrant can be registered multiple times but still not be able to avail any of the benefits offered to them. No wonder, 2.5 crore workers are still not registered and hence not eligible to get such cash benefits. As these migrants are not the voter population at cities, they don’t get any local support too. They also face other kinds of challenges, unlike local workers. They are abused or mistreated by the police and other authorities, and even locals in many cases.

In the last week of the third lockdown, due to the intervention of citizens, civil society, non-government organisations and reporting by a few independent media outlets, the whole country is witnessing the inhumane conditions that our worker community is going through. They don’t have shelter, food nor transportation services to return to their native places, and face many other challenges. Now, people are sympathising with them. But this wasn’t the case during the first lockdown. Apart from strengthening the implementation of different policies for the rural economy, the central and state governments must work together on making systematic changes to augment the functionality of the BOCW welfare boards in the following aspects:

- Standardise the registration process for all state boards

- Make applications available in all regional languages, irrespective of which board a worker is registering under

- Make registrations valid to receive all benefits from their current state (irrespective of which board they are registered under)

- Create a structure to ensure every registered worker receives their card and is made aware about their rights

- Create policies for children of migrant workers to continue their school education by introducing mobility trackers

Impact of migration

The frequent migration from one project to another, one city to another and from one state to another makes our country’s construction workers vulnerable in many ways. It restricts/prevents access to PDS benefits, basic healthcare facilities and enrolling their children in local schools. They lack sanitation facilities and are constantly exposed to pollution and hazardous site conditions. They face unhygienic and unsafe shelters, particularly for women, and lack social security, etc. They also lack emotional support and have no space for relaxation. No one in the city knows about their existence except the project team as they are highly controlled/monitored by the contractor’s security team.

Another important factor which I observed is that most of these unskilled/semi-skilled workers are also illiterate and unaware about their rights, such as getting financial support from the BOCW welfare board for constructing their own house, daughter’s marriage, higher education of their children and many other needs. As they come from other states, they can’t read the instructions written in the local language on labour welfare and rights by the Labour department.

It is not rocket science for us to understand that a lot of these workers are unregistered. As found in a report by Gayatri Sahgal and Harsh Mander: “This exclusion from membership to welfare boards denied them their rights to pension benefits, accident insurance, financial assistance in the form of loans and advances for funding the education of children or other such expenses.” (Sahgal & Mander, 2010). The report had also found that family members (often old parents and women) go through emotional emptiness from being away from their sons/husbands. It forces them to migrate with the entire family resulting in less or no access to children’s education and safety, women’s health and safety, amid long working hours.

With the outbreak of the coronavirus disease across the country, we are witnessing reverse migration from cities to villages by millions of such migrant workers. These consist of construction workers, textile workers, other factory workers, daily wage labourers, domestic workers, street vendors, etc. But there is no clarity on data about who is returning where. In this scenario, I wonder how the governments will ensure that the required help reaches the actual beneficiary, but so far there has been no satisfactory explanation from any of the governments.

Pranay Manjari Samal is a development professional, originally from Odisha. She works with government schools in Bangalore and Mumbai. She has worked as a project manager for many years in construction projects.

Related Stories

No stories found.
The News Minute