Wage disputes have increased since the lockdown, often due to the lack of clarity over who the ‘employer’ is.

Toiling without pay Bengaluru metro workers are frequent victims of wage theftMetro Labour Colony in Bengaluru/ Photograph by Maraa
news Labour Rights Sunday, March 07, 2021 - 17:25

Every day, Joy Sarkar rises before dawn to prepare breakfast and get ready for his shift working on the construction of the Bengaluru metro. For 12 hours, from 8 am till 8 pm, he operates machines whipping up batches of concrete. He stays in a room propped up with tin sheets close to the construction site and says that he has no social life to speak of. “We come back home and cook again to eat dinner. We go to sleep exhausted,” Joy says.

So it was unusual for Joy to be in his room on Thursday afternoon this week, his eyes glued to his phone. Joy says he has not worked for six days now after a group of workers at the metro construction site stopped work, alleging that their wages have not been paid since October 2020.

“I haven't received my wages for the last five months. The thekedar (sub-contractor) has given me Rs 10,000 in cash to manage my food expenses,” says Joy, 23, who hails from Berala, a village in West Bengal’s Hooghly district. “The situation is stressful because I’m unable to send money home. I’ll have to ask the thekedar for money to even buy a ticket home,” he adds.

Joy is among scores of metro construction workers on Tumakuru Road who say they have not been paid their wages for five months. The workers were contracted to Simplex Infrastructure Limited, a Kolkata-based company that is constructing a part of the Bengaluru metro, based on a tender floated by the Bengaluru Metro Rail Corporation Limited (BMRCL). BMRCL is a government agency tasked with building, operating and expanding the Bengaluru metro.

Joy Sarkar, 23

The Central Labour Department issued notices to both BMRCL and Simplex on March 1 directing them to pay 112 workers involved in the construction of the metro on Bannerghatta Road. But the workers say they are yet to be paid because there is little clarity in this informal sector about who the employer is.

Read: Uncertainty, boredom and fear: A day in the life of a migrant worker in Bengaluru

Simplex is one of several companies constructing the second phase of the metro in the city’s periphery alongside other infrastructure giants like Larsen & Toubro and ITD Cementation.

In January 2021, BMRCL terminated one of Simplex’s contracts after the company missed several deadlines for completing work on the metro line. Simplex was working on the expansion of the metro in two areas — a 7.5 km line in Kalena Agrahara-Swagath Road Cross on Bannerghatta Road, and a 3 km line in Nagasandra-Bengaluru International Exhibition Centre (BIEC) on Tumakuru Road. The contract for the development of the metro on Bannerghatta Road was terminated, with BMRCL stating that only 35% of the civil works was completed in December 2020 even though the work was supposed to be completed by December 2019.

After the termination of the contract, most workers involved in the construction of the metro line on Bannerghatta Road returned to their native places in states like Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh. A few workers along with 30 sub-contractors shifted to Reach 3 — Simplex’s other construction site on Tumakuru Road — demanding that Simplex should pay them for the work done in the last five months.

The main problem lies in the fact that the workers are not directly employed by BMRCL or Simplex. While there are engineers and supervisors employed by Simplex to oversee the construction work, labour is outsourced to sub-contractors, who are local and migrant people tasked with finding cheap labour. So workers like Joy Sarkar are not employed by BMRCL but are contractual employees who are paid by sub-contractors working with Simplex. To break it down, the money paid by BMRCL goes to Simplex, which then goes to the sub-contractors before a daily wage worker is paid.

“There are 30 workers with me. Some of them are from my village near Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh, others found me through word of mouth. I monitor their work at the construction site and pay them. The normal rate is Rs 440 for 12 hours of work (a monthly wage of around Rs 13,000),” says Umesh Singh, a sub-contractor with Simplex.

Umesh Singh, centre, a sub-contractor with Simplex

Umesh, 31, has been working as a sub-contractor for the last three years and stays in a migrant colony on Tumakuru Road. He says that until around a year ago, he was being paid by Simplex. “In the last few months, I was paid directly by BMRCL until the payments stopped in October 2020,” he says.

A Simplex official told TNM that the payment system was changed during the lockdown when construction work stalled and BMRCL decided to pay the sub-contractors directly. But problems surfaced towards the end of 2020 when neither BMRCL nor Simplex paid the wages of workers to sub-contractors even though work in the construction site continued.

Several sub-contractors working with Simplex echo Umesh Singh’s allegations. “I have not been paid the outstanding amount since October,” says Shyamal Biswas, 37, another sub-contractor with Simplex. Showing his bills for the last few months, Shyamal said he is owed more than Rs 40 lakh by Simplex, which will go towards the wages for workers who are sub-contracted under him. He says there are around 30 such sub-contractors under Simplex and hundreds of workers under them who have not been paid their wages for up to five months.

This web of sub-contractors exists even though a Karnataka High Court order issued in August 2014 stated that payment of wages to metro construction workers should be made directly to the worker without the intervention of labour contractors/sub-contractors. According to the same order, the wages should be paid in the presence of a Labour Inspector deputed by the State Department of Labour. A monitoring committee was also set up with officials from the Central Labour Commissioner, BMRCL, state Labour department and trade unions, and it meets once a month. This month’s meeting is set to take place on March 10.

The Central Labour Department investigated the claims of a few workers building the metro on Bannerghatta Road and issued notices to both BMRCL and Simplex on March 1 asking them to pay the 113 workers contracted to Simplex. The Labour Department’s notice came five months after the issue of non-payment of wages began.

“As per the Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act, if Simplex doesn’t pay the wages to workers before the seventh of every month, BMRCL has to pay the workers directly and recover the money from Simplex,” says a Labour Department official. The same official said BMRCL did not inform the Labour Department about the termination of the contract with Simplex, and did not clarify if the workers were paid their wages.

BMRCL officials say that the issue related to the payment of wages is between Simplex and its workers. “There is an issue and it’s being looked into… Usually, Simplex raises a bill, it’s then verified and the amount is paid. The bills were not raised and because of the termination of the contract, we have to check and reverify the details now. (The issue) is nothing to do with BMRCL directly but is an internal matter between Simplex and workers. We are not sure if Simplex has paid the sub-contractors and in turn, if they have paid the workers or not,” Yashavanth Chavan, Public Relations Officer (PRO) of BMRCL, says.

Simplex officials admitted that there was a delay in the payment of wages to workers and said that they had written to BMRCL about it although it is unclear whether the company has raised the bills with BMRCL for the payment of wages. Even though BMRCL was paying the subcontractors, it was only after bills were raised by Simplex.

Workers and sub-contractors with Simplex say the issue was not resolved for months and are now planning to stage a protest if their wages are not paid. In addition to the dispute with its workers, an official from an Indian Oil petrol station in Hosakote said that Simplex owes the station Rs 7 lakh and that the company was citing a lack of funds for not paying the amount.

Simplex metro construction site near Tumakuru Road

In a turn of events on Thursday, Swarup Biswas, a project manager at Simplex, claimed that the sub-contractors working on the construction in Bannerghatta Road assaulted Simplex officials and that a police complaint was filed at the Madanayakanahalli police station. However, police officials at the station did not register a first information report (FIR) in the case and said that the claims of assault are false.

The dispute involving BMRCL, Simplex and its workers raises wider questions about the metro construction industry in Bengaluru. There is big money involved in the construction of the metro. The first phase cost around USD 2 billion and the cost of constructing the second phase is earmarked at USD 3.8 billion, with funding from the state and Union governments, and major loans from the Asian Development Bank and European Investment Bank.

Despite this, the industry is prone to wage theft that is rarely reported and almost never prosecuted. The employers in the industry also don’t employ workers directly to avoid the consequences of stringent workplace regulations and unionising.

Since the start of the construction of the Namma Metro in 2009, lakhs of workers have passed by the city, toiling in construction sites to build the metro lines. But very little is documented about the identity of the workers, the migrant colonies they live in, and their living and working conditions.

Metro labour camp near Kudlu Gate in Bengaluru during the lockdown

Joy Sarkar left his home in West Bengal’s Hooghly district in 2018 at the age of 20 hoping to go back to his village one day and work in his family’s farming business. He says that the lure of earning money for his family took him to Manoj Adhikari, a sub-contractor with Simplex who is from a neighbouring village in Mogra. Joy has since worked in Bengaluru as a labourer constructing the metro. He says that in some cases, recruiters also lure unsuspecting people with the promise of an advance payment.

Once the workers reach Bengaluru, the system of sub-contractors in the metro construction industry not only gives leeway for wage disputes but also deprives them of the basic rights given to employees in other industries. Workers are not registered with the Labour Department or the Construction Workers’ Welfare Board. They do not have an identity card and lack amenities like pension, health insurance and social security. “I only have a gate pass that I have to show the security guard while entering the construction site,” says Joy holding up his card.

The safety of the workers is also neglected even though they often work in precarious conditions. “Recently, one of the workers — Firaz Sheikh — was severely injured in his left hand in an accident at the construction site. The company paid the first two bills for his treatment but later asked him to cover the expenses of his treatment on his own,” says Joy.

For many workers, the thekedar or the petty sub-contractor is the only connection to the company on paper. The sub-contractor is also the worker’s link to an alien city. “Many workers find jobs in public infrastructure projects through sub-contractors. They place their trust in sub-contractors since they are often from the same village. The workers rely on cash advances from sub-contractors for day-to-day expenses, or even paying for the wedding of someone in the family,” says Ekta M, an activist with Maraa, a Bengaluru-based media and arts collective.

Metro labour camp near Kudlu Gate in Bengaluru during the lockdown

Companies like Simplex work with sub-contractors to ensure their work is completed. The sub-contractor, in turn, takes a commission for the work in addition to paying workers’ wages. “We have observed that wages are different for workers based on their skill, their caste, and inter-personal relationship with the sub-contractor,” says Ekta.

In this system, the workers are highly dispensable, according to Ekta. “This is because there is a growing rate of unemployment in the villages and people are desperate to get jobs in cities. The sub-contractor can make profits while workers cannot imagine any scope for growth in their trajectories, moving from one construction site to the next,” she says. Several workers said that they earn between Rs 8,000 and Rs 14,000 per month as wages and are often asked to work every day, even on Sundays.

The vulnerability of workers discourages them from raising questions and being part of unions. It also restricts them from accessing labour rights or government schemes, reads a report prepared in 2020 by Maraa on Bengaluru’s metro construction industry.

In the past year, workers have died on the job, with the most recent death reported in December 2020 when a worker was killed after a cable pierced his head in Jayanagar. In such cases, activists say that police officials register FIRs against the sub-contractors and the company they work for, but leave out BMRCL from the list of accused persons.

Read: Bengaluru Metro worker killed in Jayanagar as cable pierces his head

The disputes over wages in the metro construction industry in Bengaluru increased during the lockdown over the COVID-19 outbreak in 2020, as construction was halted and sub-contractors could not pay their workers. Many metro construction workers in the city were not paid their wages for February and March 2020 and were housed in shelters set up in the city. They did not benefit from the Union government’s March 29, 2020, order asking employers to pay full wages during the lockdown because of the ambiguity over their employer.

There is an emotional price to be paid for this ambiguity and it is the workers who bear the brunt of it, says Joy. “We continued working in the hope that the thekedars will resolve the payment issue. We thought we’d be able to send money home but each day goes by with people around me thinking about what they will do next. The thekedars are planning to hold a protest over the issue,” he says.

Joy is now planning for the prospect of returning to his hometown with up to five months of unpaid wages. “I cannot continue living and working in Bengaluru for much longer if my wages are not paid. I don’t know who I can approach for this if the thekedar is unable to pay the wages. There is no one thinking about our lives or our future,” he says.

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