Date: Fri, 3 Sep 1999 18:07:33 -0500 (CDT)
/** ips.english: 418.0 **/
Hard Grind For Construction Workers
By Keya Acharya, IPS, 2 sep 1999
BANGALORE, India, Sep 2 (IPS) - Adil's name did not figure on the muster roll. So nobody cared to retrieve his body after he was buried alive along with five other construction labourers while excavating a tanker-pit for a gasoline station in south India.
It took the heckling of a local politician by family members and fellow labourers to pressure the gasoline station owner to order a re-dig of the site and locate Adil's body.
But a month after Adil's body was taken to his native village in southern Karnataka state's Bijapur district, his family vanished so that compensation could not be negotiated with the management by union workers.
"We try to negotiate on-the-spot compensation from employers when we can to avoid time-consuming legal hassles which do not help the workers," said S. Jeevanand, organising secretary of the Karnataka State Construction Workers' Union (KSCWU).
According to Jeevanand, most of the workers and their families lack awareness of their legal rights and many turn non-cooperative out of fear and mistrust of court procedures.
"Even worse, many of them accept their lot as a matter of fate and if they happen to be women do not speak out at all," Jeevanand said.
Women constitute a large part of the work force in the construction sector and their vulnerability is made more abject by the fact that many of them are from low caste groups that fled oppression in neighbouring Tamil Nadu state a few decades ago.
In recent times their numbers have swelled from a newer generation of 'ecological refugees' that fled the drought-prone, degraded lands in the Bijapur area of Karnataka, says N.P. Swamy, founder of the KCWSU.
All the labourers work in near slave-like conditions carrying heavy construction material on their heads three or four days a week at the command of masons building this city, now reckoned the fastest growing in Asia in the nineties.
The KCWSU, which currently has 38,000 members drawn from all the districts of the state, was set up in 1982 after their sad plight was highlighted by Women's Voice, a Bangalore-based non- government organisation (NGO) working in the slums.
Women's Voice co-ordinator, Ruth Manorama said her NGO discovered that most of the problems faced by women in the slums such as money disputes or sexual harassment had to do with their places of work - usually construction sites.
Even unionised women, though better aware of their rights, put up with appalling work conditions. At the Sakthinagar construction workers' slum many complained of harsh treatment, sexual harassment and daily wages of about a dollar.
And then there is no guarantee of work. "Everything depends on the all powerful masons who may not turn up at the site and then there would be no work," says Tailamma.
Alamelu, aged 20 and illiterate, said women her age have also to "comply with masons' requests."
Explains Shahtaj, a gutsy social worker with Women's Voice, "what Alamelu means is that young women are expected to grant sexual favours to the masons."
"The masons prefer younger women and then they still beat the women," says Thangapappa, a 40-year-old construction worker.
Shataj has worked in these slums for nearly ten years teaching the inhabitants their rights and how to deal with the police and legal procedures in case of trouble.
As she walks through the Sakthinagar slums, women of all ages trail after her some of them even clinging to her garments in sheer helplessness.
Women's Voice and the KSCWU have tried to give the women the representation they need but have not always been successful. And then only 50 percent of women construction workers remain non-unionised putting up with low wages or even non-payment.
Unionised women are better off and can worry about their children's education, housing and land rights. Some even manage to send their children to St. Michael's, a nearby English medium school.
"We want them to learn English and leave this place," said one mother.
The success of the KSCWU encouraged Swamy to look beyond Karnataka and form the National Federation of Construction labour
(NFCL) about 15 years ago.
Today, the NFCL boasts 300,000 members across India although that still represents only a fraction of the country's three million odd construction workers and activity is led by unions in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.
Unions in these two southern states formed the primary platform for NFCL's efforts to get the central government to enact the Building and Other Construction Workers (Regulation and Conditions of Service) Act in 1996.
But the Act is full of loopholes and give the workers no welfare or voice says Swamy who is currently busy trying get in more comprehensive state-level legislation.
"We will take up efforts to amend the central laws only after we have done something about the situation in Karnataka state," said a union leader.
Both the NFCL and the KCWSU demand the setting up of a tripartite board consisting of the government, workers' unions and employers which could then negotiate welfare terms and work conditions.
That is easier said than done because the unions are up against politically powerful construction lobbies which are active at both state and central levels.
Origin: New Delhi/DEVELOPMENT-INDIA/
[c] 1999, InterPress Third World News Agency (IPS)
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