Sweat and tears
In the mad rush to meet the deadline for the upcoming Commonwealth games, the Delhi Metro is ignoring the health and well-being of its workers. The result could be disastrous
Sadiq Naqvi Delhi
For Manoj, Delhi was a land of thousand promises. He left his home in the Maoist-affected Palamau, Jharkhand in search of greener pastures. "My family would have starved to death had I not come here. Whatever little I got at least kept us alive," he says. He is one of a group of workers who had gathered at a trade union's office on Diwali eve. Reason: They have not been paid their wages for the last two months. All they got was a paltry allowance.
These men work at a Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC) site managed by Larsen and Toubro near Udyog Bhawan. During Diwali, they demanded their due. But the contractor rebuked them citing shortage of funds for non-payment.
Hardnews spoke to the sub-contractor, who had employed these workers. He said, "We pay wages on time but these workers ran away without informing us." The workers, however, claimed they were never paid wages on time, leave alone other benefits or medical facilities.
These men in yellow helmets live in inhuman conditions. Most of the workers have to pay for their accommodation or squeeze with a dozen others in a single room provided by the contractor. Many live in tin shacks without basic toilet facilities.
Drought and unemployment have forced most of these men migrate to Delhi. Even the much-hyped NREGS has not been able to stem the tide of migration of labour.
Manoj's monthly job card tells a story of exploitation of these construction workers. In August, he worked twice for 55 hours at a stretch with just an hour's break in between. He managed a short nap once in a while. Labour laws clearly state that no person can be asked to work for more than 12 hours in a day. Moreover, the payment for the overtime should be made at double the rate of the existing minimum wages.
The DMRC has increased the minimum wages to Rs 180 for eight hours of work. Another worker, Balram Tiwary, said, "Instead of Rs 315, we are paid Rs 140 for working 12 hours at a stretch. They don't count the one-hour lunch break." Overtime is seldom paid. The booty, which the sub-contractors manage to save, is shared among themselves.
"If we ask the contractor to pay as per the rules, he asks us to leave the job," Sunil told Hardnews. Twelve-hour work is a normal practice at almost all DMRC sites. When Hardnews contacted the joint labour commissioner in Delhi about this, he bluntly said "We can't do anything because the DMRC is not in our jurisdiction." The regional labour commissioner's office also refused to comment.
For the labourers, the job is for a short stint as the construction work will end in a stipulated time period. DMRC sources revealed that contractors get workers from Jharkhand and West Bengal for just 49 days. Their families are paid a one-time sum of Rs 3,500. After the work is over, they have to return to their villages. The fare of the journey is borne by the contractor.
But, the contractor charges for the safety equipment provided to workers. They are supposed to give these equipment for free. "I paid Rs 60 for my helmet, Rs 350 for my shoes and another Rs 100 for a fluorescent jacket," said Munshi.
The DMRC project has been hailed as a social project. Often, elusive profits are contributed towards social cause. However, the DMRC management has turned a blind eye towards the appalling condition of more than 40,000 workers toiling at DMRC sites.
The contract document signed between contractors and the DMRC states that all guidelines are in accordance with the Buildings and Other Construction Workers Act, 1996. In reality, the DMRC has no mechanism to evaluate or punish the erring contractors. "There is no mechanism to check if the labour laws are being implemented at all," an engineer of ETA, an engineering firm working on DMRC projects, told Hardnews.
He also said, "All this is happening because of the mad rush to catch the deadline for the upcoming Commonwealth games. What the management wants is work at all cost. There is tremendous pressure on us to finish before the deadline."
According to the DMRC spokesperson, "At every site, Safety, Health and Environment (SHE) committees are established with representation of contractors and sub-contractors and their workers. Meetings of these committees are held once every month and a DMRC representative is present. In case, the meetings are not held and proper representation of contractors/ sub-contractors/ workers is not there, DMRC imposes penalty."
The rush can be gauged from the report on the Zamrudpur accident in July. The three-member committee in its report had noted that no seismic analysis of the structure was carried out, something which is mandatory for improving the performance in case of an earthquake. Moreover, the drawings of the pier were merely first submissions. The committee had noted that it does not ensure a safe design. This caused two accidents in two consecutive days, killing and injuring several workers.
The Delhi government has constituted the Delhi Building and other Construction Workers' Welfare Board headed by Delhi's labour minister. The DMRC is believed to be the highest cess paying agency in Delhi. The government had levied one per cent cess on all construction activities in Delhi. The money collected as cess goes to the welfare board meant to be used for the workers.
According to some estimates, more than Rs 300 crore is lying idle in the board's coffers. Out of around eight lakh construction workers in Delhi, only 20,000 are registered with the board. "We can't go to all the people personally and ask them to enrol with the board. We had asked the DMRC to provide us with information about its workers and also help them in registering with the board. Now it's for them to act," said a joint labour commissioner of Delhi.
Interestingly, workers at DMRC sites don't know about the existence of the board. The board has welfare provisions for construction workers at a nominal membership fee of Rs 25 per year. The provisions include pension after retirement and scholarships of upto Rs 5,000 per month for their children's education.
But workers don't have access to any social security scheme by the employer except for a group accident insurance scheme. Most of them said that they were not aware of any provident fund.
Trade union activists are now getting construction workers to become members of the board. "Once we get them registered for the welfare board, a record is created. After that, we can press the government to act on other matters like non-payment of minimum wages," said Subhash Bhatnagar of Nirman Mazdoor Panchayat Sangam. He is also a member of the welfare board.
According to Mohan Lal of CITU, "The workers are shifted from one site to another so that they have no permanent residence. This makes the task of organising them very difficult." Now, the trade unions are demanding a common identity card for construction workers all across the country. This will help workers in availing of welfare provisions irrespective of the region they are working in.