A protest in Hyderabad earlier this year. – By Sudhir Katiyar Majoor na paanch sau, na karigar na hazar; warna band bazar Worker to get Rs. 500/- per day and mason Rs. 1000/- per day, else the market will shut. In an audacious move reminiscent of the a …

Walton Pantland
A protest in Hyderabad earlier this year.

A protest in Hyderabad earlier this year.

– By Sudhir Katiyar

Majoor na paanch sau, na karigar na hazar; warna band bazar Worker to get Rs. 500/- per day and mason Rs. 1000/- per day, else the market will shut.

In an audacious move reminiscent of the actions of rank-and-file construction workers at sites across the UK, Indian construction workers are taking action to demand a doubling of the wage and more. Union action gets the goods!

Majdoor Adhikar Manch, a general workers Union in Gujarat, is in the middle of a campaign with construction workers of Ahmedabad. The ambitious campaign is seeking to enforce a strike of construction workers. In spite of the fact that construction is a boom sector and realty prices almost double every four five years, wages remain depressed and work conditions abominable. There is almost no history of large scale industrial action led by the workers in the industry.

This is in contrast to other major unorganized sectors like agriculture and brick kilns that have witnessed some mass scale industrial action, even if of a sporadic nature. Workforce contracted through a series of contractors (up to 4 or 5 between principal employer and worker), short term deployment (days, weeks, and at the maximum months), and ethnic and spatial divisions; all together make it very difficult to enforce common industrial action.

There are two modes of employment in construction work, with some differences in mode of recruitment, terms of work, and living conditions:

1. For large construction projects, workers are sourced directly from their villages through labor contractors. These workers stay at the construction site.

2. For small repair and maintenance work in the city, workers are recruited from nakas, informal labour markets where workers assemble in the morning. The prevailing wage rate on nakas is around Rs. 300. However workers on nakas get on average between 10 and 20 days of work per month. The site workers get employed for longer durations but get paid much lower wages at Rs.180-220. The three main groups of workers involved in construction work in Ahmedabad are – tribal workers from North Gujarat, South Rajasthan, and West MP comprising more than half the total number of workers and migrating with their families; local dalit workers; and dalit/ backward caste workers from other states.

The Union has released a charter that is comprehensive and covers all aspect of the workers’ situation. The demands are summarized below.

Demand charter

  • Workers be paid Rs. 500 and masons Rs. 1000
  • Registration of all workers in Construction Workers’ Welfare Board
  • Proper housing for all
  • Urban Employment Guarantee Scheme on the pattern of rural scheme for workers at nakas who do not get work
  • Education for children, early childhood care for infants, health facilities, and cheap ration
  • Linkage with ESI, PF, and other welfare schemes for workers
  • Proper facilities of rest and sanitation at the nakas where workers stand in the morning
  • Compensation in case of accidents to be paid to all workers
  • Increase in contractors’ rates to offset hike in workers’ wages
  • Issue of license to all contractors

The highlight of course is the ambitious demand for almost a two fold increase in wages of nakas workers and two and a half times for site workers. This seems unrealistic at first glance. However this unrealistic demand has galvanized the workers at the nakas; and more than the workers the labour contractors who recruit them. For the past two months, Union has undertaken a series of meetings at the nakas of Ahmedabd. The demand for wage hike has led to intense opposition from the labour contractors. The opposition almost led to violence at some places. The dynamics of the naka is such that workers have already started demanding higher wages from the contractors. Contractors are livid that they are being put under pressure to pay higher wages while their rates have not changed.

The contractors’ resistance also flows from the perceived failure of a large scale action ten years back. Bhuvan Bharwad, a contractor form Bharwad community that is numerically dominant and has lot of muscle power, mobilized the contractor and enforced a strike in the market. The strike was led by the naka contractors who closed the nakas and enforced a shutdown of the sites. There is no documentation available of the strike. However, most contractors say that they did not gain anything. The strike however seems to have launched the career of Bhuvan Bharwad, who became a builder and subsequently a MLA.

The union has also begun mobilization at the construction sites. It is difficult to contact the workers who remain in closed boundaries guarded by watchmen. A single site may have workers from 6-7 states recruited through 20 or more labour contractors. There are two sites being developed by large industrial houses – Godrej Garden City and Adani Shanti Gram. The contract for construction at both these sites has been awarded to L&T, the largest construction company in India, well known for its professional management. L&T has permanent staff that enjoys benefits of various social security acts like PF. However contract labour outnumbers the permanent labour and is paid as low as elsewhere.

Applewoods, a large construction site
Applewoods is a large construction site on the Sanand Highway. It is a township with 15 multi storey buildings, a shopping complex with the major brands, and a large sports complex. Each large building is under a main contractor who is responsible for undertaking all construction work. The main contractor then hires engineers and workers. Different components of work are given to different contractors. Earth digging, masonry and plaster, RCC work that includes shuttering and centering, plumbing, electrical, paint, cleaning after the construction. The site is under construction for last two years and it may take one more year to reach completion. The site may have up to 1000 workers. The workers are from tribal parts of Gujarat, Rajsthan, Bihar, West Bengal, and Odisha recruited by more than 20 labour contractors and transported directly to the site from villages. There is a small proportion of local workers also who commute. The workers live in tin shades that are like hovels. While the company provides water for drinking and bathing, there are no sanitation facilities. The wages range between Rs. 180 to Rs. 220.

There are a number of scenarios being worked on:

1. Workers at nakas, who are easier to mobilize and more radical, are organized and march to the construction sites forcing closure of sites
2. Mobilization efforts are focused at a large construction sites employing 1000+ workers. Success at one site will create an upward pressure on other sites and in the market. Two meetings are called in the next week – a meeting with contractors on 28th November and a meeting of workers on 2nd December. The next steps will be finalized
at and after these two meetings.

Sudhir Katiyar
on behalf of Majdoor Adhikar Manch Ahmedabad

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License.
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Walton Pantland

South African trade unionist living in Glasgow. Loves whisky, wine, running and the great outdoors. Walton did an MA in Industrial Relations at Ruskin, Oxford, and is interested in how trade unions use new technology to organise.

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