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Landless labourers? Busting the myth of the migrant in the construction economy

[By Shweta Mahendra Chandrashekhar]

I was born in Lonavala and brought up in Pune, both places located in the western region of India. Some of the vivid memories I have of my childhood include visits to numerous tunnel construction sites in India (Pune-Mumbai Expressway, Konk­­an Railway, Delhi Metro). My father’s infrastructure firm has been in the business of building tunnels for more than 35 years and many of our family trips in the 1990s & 2000s included such visits. Since most of the sites were away from the city and amid mountains and forests, it was a welcome break from the din and bustle of daily city life. As a young girl, I used to interact enthusiastically with the site supervisors, engineers and workers, sometimes even accompanying my father deep into the freshly excavated tunnels.

Image credit: Safal karki

My most recent visit (December, 2019) to a tunnel construction site was in Karwar (Karnataka) near an old highway bridge constructed by the British on the National Highway (NH-4), dubbed by locals as ‘London Bridge’. My father’s company was in the middle of a time-bound construction project of a twin tube tunnel for NH-4. There were more than 250 construction workers at the site, most of them skilled migrants from the states of Odisha, Jharkhand & West Bengal. Recently, my father gave me a first-hand account of the impact of the COVID pandemic and nationwide lockdown on the construction sector:

“My company is based in Pune. I travel to Karwar frequently, usually stay there for a fortnight and come back to Pune. The construction work of tunnels is different from other works as it goes on round the clock and in three shifts per day. On the late evening of 24th March, my mobile phone was ringing constantly. Akash Rana, my site engineer was on the phone and he informed me that a nationwide lockdown had just been announced by the Prime Minister. My first reaction to this national emergency was to go to the site immediately (normally I would retire after meditation for half an hour in the evening). I reached the site and as the news had unfolded on media, the workers were agitated. While I stayed in my guest house in Karwar, several of my site engineers were accommodated in another guest house. The drillers, blasters and other crew members stayed at site where we had erected temporary structures on government land allotted to us for erection of the site office. Most migrant workers usually stay for six months, return to their native homes for farming and come back again. Some of the workers had already booked tickets to return home. I assured them that it’s a matter of 30-40 days and I would take care of their compensation and ration during this period. These workers had migrated for a better life for their families. They were not landless labourers. They had agricultural land in their villages and associated animal husbandry. They have migrated to earn more as the local economy had little to offer whereas the construction sites gave them a variety of jobs and higher pay scales. A month’s supply of ration for staff mess was immediately procured. The lockdown was severe, and it was challenging to maintain the supply line of ration as law enforcement agencies didn’t allow any vehicles on road. The next day I rushed to the District Collector’s office and requested them to issue us passes so that we were not obstructed by the law enforcement agencies to carry rations and medical supplies to the workers. The pass allowed us to move four wheelers with rations. Local government’s efforts were encouraging, and I received a call from a state intelligence officer asking me about the number of migrant workers with me along with their home address. The impact of lockdown on infrastructure projects was imminent and all work was stalled. With the wisdom of hindsight, it appears that infrastructure projects should have been exempted from the massive lockdown. Most of the construction sites were away from urban areas, workers could have stayed at the respective sites and projects could go on without any interference. Almost a month later, we faced a strong demand from the site workers to return home. Some of them had genuine reasons to be home as monsoon was closing in and they had to look after their agricultural land for the grains would be part of their year-long supply of rations. We hired two private buses. After receiving permission from the government of Karnataka, one left for Odisha and another for Bihar.”

The construction industry has been heavily affected due to a lack of workers. According to a newspaper report :

“The departure of migrant workers in the last two months has depleted 75 per cent workforce employed at different construction sites of Pune Metro and has slowed the progress to just about 20 to 25 per cent of the usual capacity, as per MahaMetro officials.”

In the popular media and common-sense view, the migrant construction workers are often stereotyped as landless labourers who have no choice but to migrate from their home states. However, it is worth investigating and analysing how many actually do belong to this category. As recorded in my father’s chronicle, many workers are landholding farmers, who had consciously decided to migrate for better prospects. This dual role of the migrants – as farmers and construction workers – has a potential to disrupt the common perception of them as landless labourers solely concerned with subsistence and without any aspiration for upward mobility. In his essay ‘The Capacity to Aspire: Culture and the Terms of Recognition’, Arjun Appadurai considers the capacity to aspire as a cultural capacity and not just an economic one. He says:

“Aspirations certainly have something to do with wants, preferences, choices, and calculations. And because these factors have been assigned to the discipline of economics, to the domain of the market and to the level of the individual actor (all approximate characterizations), they have been largely invisible in the study of culture. To repatriate them into the domain of the culture, we need to begin by noting that aspirations form parts of wider ethical and metaphysical ideas which derive from larger cultural norms.”

The hardship faced by the migrants during their journey from cities to villages has been well documented in the media. Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN) has published three reports, so far, describing the migrants’ distress. Many steps have been taken by central, state and local governments to provide relief in the form of Shramik trains, free food grains, cash transfers and employment opportunities. The allocation for MGNREGA, a program that enhances livelihood security in rural areas by providing at least 100 days of wage employment to every household whose adult members volunteer to do unskilled manual work, was increased by Rs. 40,000 crores (5,334 million USD). Migrants, who returned to their home states, have created the additional demand for work under MGNREGA and states like Rajasthan have reported record employment. Moreover, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also launched Garib Kalyan Rozgar Abhiyan (GKRA), a program to ensure employment in mission mode in 116 districts across six states (Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Jharkhand and Odisha) where the maximum number of migrant workers have returned. MGNREGA generates employment mainly for unskilled workers and is provided each year since it was enacted as a law. However, GKRA is a one-time program that brings together 25 categories of ongoing work. It will continue for 125 days and is aimed at skilled workers who have returned to their native places because of the lockdown. Mission mode implies that GKRA employment will be rapidly generated by an active coordination of 11 central government ministries so that ongoing works which were progressing at a normal pace as per schedule, are now fast-tracked to transform the challenge presented by the pandemic into an opportunity to quickly create infrastructure in rural areas. The basket of a wide variety of works in GKRA will ensure that each migrant worker is able to get an opportunity of employment according to her / his skill.

Image credit: Bjørn Christian Tørrissen

Social welfare measures for the construction workers are enshrined in the Building and Other Constructions Workers (BOCW) (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1996. The preamble of the BOCW Act explains: “An act to regulate the employment and conditions of service of building and other construction workers and to provide for their safety, health and welfare measures and for other matters connected therewith or incidental thereto.” The BOCW Act establishes Welfare Boards in each state to provide financial and medical assistance to construction workers.

Various estimates put the total number of construction workers in the range of 50-60 million while the number of registered construction workers is only 35 million. So far, the state governments have disbursed a substantial amount of Rs. 4957 crores (661 million USD) cash assistance to approximately 20 million registered construction workers across the country during the lockdown. About 17.5 million of these transactions were done directly into the bank accounts of the workers through Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT). However, the relief provided to construction workers has not been entirely smooth. Telephonic interviews, conducted by Jan Sahas (NGO), with 3,196 migrant construction workers from north and central India between 27th­­- 29th March 2020 found that 94 % of interviewed workers did not have BOCW cards, making them ineligible for any transfer. Further, 14 % did not have ration cards and 17 % did not have bank accounts. Clearly, not every BOCW is registered with the Welfare Boards and not every registered BOCW has benefitted from cash transfer. The criteria for registration are determined by the state governments. For example, in Delhi, a certificate from a registered trade union suffices to get a construction worker registered with the state BOCW Welfare Board, while for a worker in Uttar Pradesh, a builder’s certificate specifying that she / he was involved with the construction activity for 90 days in the previous 12 months is required. Often the builders / contractors do not issue such certificates, making workers ineligible for registration with the board. In the state of Delhi, the labour department last year made the registration process more extensive, requiring every applicant to fill out a 12-page form. In addition, many workers routinely fall off the grid of the safety net due to their inability to stick to the compulsory annual renewal. For example, the number of registered construction workers in Delhi fell from over 300,000 to 40,000 between 2015 and 2020.

In order to address this issue, the central government has planned multiple measures as under:

Now-a-days, most of the welfare schemes of central, state and local governments are operated as a Direct Benefits Transfer (DBT) program where cash is transferred directly in the bank accounts of beneficiaries. The DBT program is built on the convergence of Jan Dhan Bank Account, Aadhar Card (biometric-authenticated unique identification number) and Mobile Phone Number and is called the JAM trinity in popular parlance. A minimum digital literacy is therefore necessary for workers to harness the internet for availing banking services from their mobile phones. Apart from the government’s flagship Digital India program, there are many other initiatives taken by private sector to improve digital literacy among women. Google India and Tata Trusts’ initiative Internet Saathi has benefited 17 million women in rural India. National Digital Literacy Mission by NASSCOM Fo­undation has been initiated with the vision to empower at least one person per household with crucial digital literacy skills by 2020.

A minimum level of digital literacy alone is not enough. It should be bolstered with a minimum financial literacy (basic knowledge of banking operations) and a minimum civic literacy (basic knowledge of govt. schemes). For example, how many workers are aware that there are 16 welfare schemes run by the Govt. of Maharashtra for BOCW ? Do they know that they are entitled to home journey allowance including payment of wages during the period of journey according to section 15 of Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment & Conditions of Service) Act, 1979 ? Are they aware that Kerala government provides insurance and free medical treatment to migrant workers? (see also Siddharth de Souza’s blog post on this issue). However, it will be premature to assume that this is entirely a literacy or awareness issue. It could also be that the workers distrust the enforcement of these measures or they don’t want to be profiled so they don’t get identity cards which can allow them to capitalize on these initiatives. Therefore, this topic requires further investigation and analysis. 

When the lockdown is lifted, I plan to visit another construction site in Solapur where my father’s firm has started operations. According to American sociologist Charles Wright Mills, sociology should be about examining the biographies of individuals in the context of history of societies. It would be worthwhile to understand the concerns of female workers in the construction sector and their methods to organize themselves. By contextualizing this understanding in the backdrop of their usage of digital platforms, perhaps a new narrative can be constructed! 

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Beauty gig work in the time of Covid-19

By Sai Amulya Komarraju

In late March 2020, India declared a nation-wide lockdown, restricting the movement of people and services considered as non-essential in an effort to restrict the spread of Covid-19. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s clarion call of “Jaan hai tho jahan hai” (loosely translated as health is wealth) was an effort to justify the sudden announcement of a complete lockdown, leaving millions of migrant workers to fend for themselves. Both the central and the state governments have announced several relief packages to those involved in the informal and unorganized sectors, and to BPL (below the poverty line) families. They have also requested employers everywhere to consider giving their employees paid leave. This effort overlooks those involved in the gig economy who are not employees but partners, and whose incomes are not fixed but directly proportional to the number of customers they are able to garner, even under ordinary conditions.

Beauty worker in India. Image Credit: innacoz

The effect of this lockdown on gig workers is not lost on companies such as Urban Company (UC, formerly Urban Clap), India’s largest at-home beauty service provider, based in Gurgaon, Haryana. A phased response was adopted by UC beginning with awareness programs aimed at “training service partners on how to maintain hygiene, the right technique of washing their hands”, providing personal protective equipment, leading up to the launch of a relief fund for its 30000+ (of the 50000+) partners. It offers income protection, health insurance, and even extend business advances in the form of soft loans to service providers to help them through this difficult time. As the lockdown measures were eased to allow the functioning of essential services, UC started taking bookings for some services (plumbing, cleaning, pest services were allowed but not grooming).

While all earning from gig work depends on the number of services offered, the beauty gig workers are particularly affected and the reasons are two-fold. Firstly, the target group UC has tried to bring into gig work almost entirely comprises of women (referred to as beauty and parlour didis—older sisters in Hindi) in low paying jobs (earning Rs. 15,000 or less than USD 200 per month) at beauty salons. UC states in their press release that salon chains and independent salons are exploitative enterprises that trap “beauticians in low paying jobs and prevents them from becoming micro-entrepreneurs because they can’t afford to buy their own kit” while “salon owners own fancy cars and live in expensive homes.” UC, on the other hand, trains beauticians, and also provides portable beauty kits costing Rs. 35,000 -40,000 on an instalment basis. Although there is no break up of workforce in terms of gender or geography (in the case of migrants), it is worth asking how these women (arguably from lower socio-economic strata) who perhaps do not have ration cards that entitle them to government subsidies, and who have undertaken the risk of engaging in gig work will cope financially. How will didis who may have availed loans extended by UC to equip themselves with the tools and materials manage, now that they find themselves out of work saddled with products that may have a short shelf life?

Sign advertising beauty services. Image credit: Michael Kohli

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the level of precarity women gig workers experience is also affected by how/what the government and the platform define as ‘essential’. For the government, essential services include those directly involved in disease prevention, mitigation or care measures. When lockdown regulations were eased, UC defined ‘essential’ to mean plumbing, electric, and pest control services. After further easing of  lockdown regulations (announced on May 4 2020),  UC has finally started accepting bookings for grooming services in zones that are designated by the government as “safe”, provided it is not in violation of the restrictions imposed by residents’ welfare associations and housing societies. However, it remains to be seen how many beauty gig workers can actually go back to work, and if their stories of unemployment will ever make it to mainstream media or social media.

It is also noteworthy that despite so many stories about migrant workers, there is a notable absence of the woman migrant worker, including and not limited to those employed in traditional parlours or work as domestic help. It is also problematic that the common pictures of migrant women are those of pregnant women and those with children, essentialising women as mothers, and effectively making invisible single women who come to the city for their livelihood. If these stories do not make headlines, then what chance do urban women workers in gig work have of their voices being heard?

Arundhathi Roy writes, “historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next”. Perhaps, this pandemic is an entry point for us to start thinking about the very many groups of people who are differently disadvantaged. We now recognize that the lockdown has affected the informal sector in unprecedented ways. But what needs to be acknowledged is the many layers of that sector, and the nuances of the different kinds of labour that make up the whole.

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Building on empathy: can we broaden the conversation?

By Usha Raman

As India imposed a near-complete lockdown in March, accompanied by social distancing recommendations, things began to fall apart for the millions engaged in daily wage labour across multiple sectors. To them, the sudden absence of work meant the inability to pay for shelter and food, the barest needs to sustain oneself in a monetized economy. The central government and many state governments began announcing relief measures but alongside, civil society began to step up with small community led efforts. The emerging discourse of shared responsibility among the privileged classes holds promise for a wider appreciation of the rights of those in the unorganized sector, and a greater appreciation of the precarious nature of such work.

Writing in the Peoples Archive of Rural India the day after India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the lockdown on March 24, journalist P Sainath remarked: “Somehow, the better off and middle classes seem convinced that if we stay at home and practice social distancing, all will be well. That, at least, we will be insulated from the virus. There is no recognition of how the economic distress will work its way back to us.”

Sketch by Usha Raman

The economic distress he was referring to was, of course, the distress of the millions of daily wage earners, a majority of them migrants from the poorest states in the country—Bihar, Orissa, Jharkhand. Soon the mainstream media purveyed hundreds of images of migrants stranded without shelter and food in cities that had turned hostile to them. Even as many began to exit cities in the thousands, in the hope of finding some succor in their native villages, many others, who had made a more permanent home in the city, were left with nowhere to go and no way to earn a living. Photographs in newspapers and videos circulating on social media told heart-rending stories of fear, confusion and hunger, whole families walking with their few belongings and being harangued by the police, whose job ironically was to ensure that citizens were protected from the disease. While the government’s hastily cobbled together relief measures—reactive rather than proactive and strategic—began to be implemented, many other groups swung into action. Moved by the stories of sudden displacement and deprivation, civil society groups, both organized and spontaneously formed, stepped into the vacuum caused by the loss of jobs and the absence of social security of any kind.

An analysis by IT4Change team members Sohel Sarkar and Deepthi Bharthur put it, the pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus has given us “a universal teachable moment”. While the cynical may point out that not all teachable moments lead to learning, one can discern in this moment the potential to refashion our imagination and understanding of what an equitable and just society should look like.

While precarity has been a recurrent theme in conversations about the future of work, the pandemic has brought into sharp relief what this could mean, not only for those in the shadow of automation and the network economy, but also for those engaged in, quite literally, the “brick and mortar” sectors of construction, sanitation, and the numerous other jobs that turn the wheels of the city’s machinery. Journalist Rukmini S writes that close to 12 percent of urban households rely on casual labour for their income, while many more may be classified as “self-employed” such as petty vendors, providers of low-skill services such as cobblers, dhobis (clothes washers) and workers contracted through platforms.

The Covid-19 conversation has brought new eyes and ears to attention. Middle class India is forced to see what life looks like for those who do not have the privileges that come with assured salaries, stable living arrangements, and for a few, the continuity provided by the means to work from home. This is not a new realization, but never before has the story been so consistently in the headlines and presented in such detail over and over again to the Indian middle-class media consumer. It is in this context that the “teachable moment” holds potential. From being a concern for a few do-gooders who advocate for workers’ rights, precarity has acquired the sharp contours of materiality—it leads to loss of shelter and food, and the inaccessibility to [what should be] the most ordinary of services like health and education and ultimately, dignity. Even for those who have been in the thick of the battle for workers’ rights, this moment pushes even further the need to demand not only fairness in wages and working conditions in the present, but also a security net that envisions precarity in the broadest way possible.

Sketch by Usha Raman

Aruna Roy and Nikhil Dey of MKSS, refer to the need for us to recognize the deep inequities that have persisted and made newly visible due to the Covid-19 lockdown: “Those who benefited most from this growth see this workforce in utilitarian, rather than human terms. The privileged must understand that if they do not want to be affected by impoverishment and insecurity that has afflicted these workers, a minimal level of livelihood security will have to be guaranteed to labour, farmers and workers in the informal sector.” This also calls for responses that go beyond charity and lead to structural and policy reforms that can build a more caring society, not just a more efficient one driven by narrow notions of economic productivity.

Our work in FemLab.Co attempts to understand what livelihood security could look like from the bottom up, for women workers in the selected sectors of the informal economy, and fill out the notion of precarity in real, experiential ways. These months under lock down will have, hopefully, engendered greater empathy among those who provide employment and those who have taken the city’s labour for granted, while possibly giving advocates a keener sense of how demands must be articulated.

Those whose lives are lived on the edge have always had a sense of precarity. The rest of us have now, second hand, had a glimpse of it.