By Tripti Nath, Womens Feature Service
Rajni and Chidami, a couple from Mau Rampur in Jhansi, Uttar Pradesh, take turns to attend to their two-month-old infant, Aashiq, at a construction site near the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium. This is the stadium that will host the opening and closing ceremonies of the XIX Commonwealth Games to be held in Delhi in October.
As Rajni gets busy digging, Chidami wipes his wet brow with cement smeared hands to check on the baby lying on a bed of plastic bags. It is 1.45 pm but a meal is nowhere in sight. The relentless pace of work carries on well past the lunch break. Barring a handful of male labourers smoking ‘beedis’ (local cigarettes) and haggling over the price of a packet of fresh coconut pieces with a pavement vendor, there is no sign of any food. For water, the workers have to walk almost half a kilometre to fill up their grimy plastic water bottles that may last them for a couple of hours. There is no shelter, either from the sun or the rain, in a season that has seen a great deal of thunderstorms in the Capital.
On this particular site where at least a hundred men and women, including a few who are mere teenagers, are toiling away day-and-night there is only one toilet run by the Sulabh Shauchalaya. As far as creche facilities are concerned, they are nowhere in sight. In fact, the contrast between the sordid conditions under which these workers live and work, and the glitzy Games venues they are helping to build, is incongruous and tragic.
Not a single worker here can be spotted wearing basic safety gear like gloves, boots or helmets. Venkatamma, 45, has come all the way from Hyderabad to work at the site with her 15-year-old daughter, Jyoti. She uses a wet towel to cover her head as she hauls headloads of earth to the construction site.
These are workers, many of them women with young children, who have travelled long distances to work so that Delhi can take pride in having hosted the Games. They come from as far away as Jhansi and Warangal, putting up with harsh living conditions and great upheavals in their personal lives. They do this in the expectation that they will earn some extra money for themselves as an insurance against the vicissitudes of the future. But even here they are shortchanged.
Take the case of Rajni and Chidami. All they get for a day’s work is Rs 110 each, although the contractor claims that they earn Rs 300 to Rs 350 for an eight-hour shift. There is, in fact, a lot of ambiguity about wages and number of working hours. Some women from Jhansi allege they are not being paid every day. Complains Shanti, “They pay us once a week and that too not the due amount. If we are owed Rs 770, we will be paid Rs 330. They always hold back some cash.” An overseer points out that the women workers arrive for work at 8 am and go on till 7.30 pm. A four-member monitoring committee appointed by the Delhi High Court, however, bears Shanti out. It has reported (in March 2010) that workers at Games-related construction sites were not being paid the minimum wage and were made to work over time for no extra money. It had also pointed out to sub-standard accommodation for workers and lack of hygiene and environmental sanitation.
For these workers, many of whom are young women with small children, this is clearly a choice between starvation in their villages and exploitation in the national Capital. If they had stayed back at home, they would have got much less – even when jobs were available – than even the measly wages they are given on such construction sites in Delhi. It is their lack of options that causes them to fall prey to the machinations of the contractors and sub-contractors who hire them.
Subhash Bhatnagar, a member of the Delhi Building and Other Construction Workers Welfare Board, a government body, points out that workers – men and women – on the Games sites are being paid only Rs 140 to Rs 150 for 12 hours when the government prescribed daily wage for an unskilled construction worker is Rs 203 for eight hours. Observes Bhatnagar, “They are not being paid overtime at any site but are being made to work for 12 hours at a wage that is less than the prescribed minimum wage for 8 hours. This constitutes a violation of the Minimum Wages Act. Besides, the authorities are also in breach of the provisions of the Interstate Migrant Workers (Regulation of Employment and Condition of Services) Act, 1979.”
Having personally visited at least 15 of the over 25 CWG sites in Delhi, Bhatnagar is convinced that the living and working conditions of these labourers, who come from over a dozen states in the country, are simply abysmal. Apart from wages, he is dismayed by the lack of safety and other social security provisions spelt out under the Building and Other Construction Workers (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service Act, 1996).
As Bhatnagar puts it, “The nature of the work is hazardous but the government is paying no attention towards enforcing the safety norms. Failure of safety provisions has already caused more than 60 deaths of construction workers working on different sites. Despite repeated orders by the Delhi High Court and deadline extensions, a large number of construction workers at different Commonwealth Games sites have either not been registered or not been issued identity cards. Until they are registered, they are not entitled to any social security benefits provided by the Board. These include children’s education support, medical care, maternity benefits, immediate assistance in case of accident, and pension that can be claimed after the age of 60.”
In their race against time, contractors are resorting to anti-labour policies and taking all kinds of liberties with the law. While corruption and lack of preparedness of those who are organising the XIX Commonwealth Games have grabbed the headlines of late, not enough attention has been paid to the pathetic working and living conditions of the men and women who built the venues for the Games.
The question is why a government that is spending close to $10 billion on hosting the world’s third largest multinational sporting event is close fisted about paying the indispensable workers their legally prescribed wages.