Advocating for the Rights of Construction Workers: Nirman's Experience ...
Advocating for the Rights of Construction
Workers: Nirman's Experience
'Nirman' is a field action project of the College of Social Work, Mumbai, which
has evolved over the years in its approach and strategies. This paper presents the
characteristics of the construction workers who are predominantly migrant work-
ers and the intervention strategies that Nirman has adopted to facilitate the reach
out of public services to workers on the one hand, and workers awareness of their
rights to improve access and utilisation.
Ms. Vaijayanta Anand is a Faculty Member of the College of Social Work, Nirmala
The building and construction industry is the second largest absorber
of the bulk of the Indian labour force in the unorganised sector.
According to the 1991 census (India, 1991), the total labour force in
India is estimated to be 317 million, in which the organised sector
employs only 26.8 million (8.5 per cent) while the unorganised sector
employs as many as 29.02 million (91.5 per cent). As defined by the
International Labour Office (ILO):
construction is one of the principal industries in all countries.
It is an industry that has its own unique characteristics, and
contributes to almost all developmental programmes. Almost
all development projects and programmes in the field of
health, education, food production and transport, require con-
struction work and in many cases, this component of the
development process is by far the costliest. Hence, it is true
to say that construction industry underpins development and
provides the brick and mortar of progress.
This industry is characterised by aspects like instability, short
duration, wide range of skills, management of complex interactions,
uniqueness of products leading to circumstances where blatant exploi-
tation of construction workers takes place. No special concern appears
848 Vaijayanta Anand
to have been shown towards these workers either by the Central or
State government or trade unions and non-government organisations
Campaigning for the rights of construction workers at the worksite
has been a very difficult and extremely frustrating task. If one looks
around, one finds that Indian trade unions of all political ideologies,
have concentrated on the industrial workers or the organised sector
where the workers are employed directly by the principal employer.
The stakes are higher and gains in power politics are, therefore, more
lucrative. The task of organising them is also easier for they are steady
in their employment and fixed in their location. Non-government
organisations seem to be shying away from taking up activities for this
group as it involves several complicated issues and yield very little
concrete long term results.
Before entering into the intricacies of various ways in which the
construction workers' rights can be upheld, it is essential to understand
the exact nature of the construction industry and the labour force it
employs. One also needs to understand who contributes to their misery,
by acts of commission and omission.
The construction industry is a highly labour intensive activity
absorbing a large number of skilled and unskilled humanpower. In
India, the capital invested in the construction industry is much larger
than any other industry. Investment made in the construction activity
during the first 30 years after Independence was more than the total
investment on it during the 150 years of the British rule in India.
The building and construction industry covers a wide spectrum of
activities ranging from construction for habitation, institution, com-
mercial and industrial purposes to construction of infrastructures like
roads and bridges. They also include construction of large develop-
mental structures like dams, barrages, tunnels, canals, power plants,
sewerages, laying of railways, pipelines, cables and ropeways, erection
of towers, chimneys, and so on. It also includes demolition and
maintenance of structures and services. Moreover, it supports the other
closely linked ancillary industries like brick kilns, tile factories, stone
quarrying, sand dredging, wood, glass, limestones and paints, cement,
steel, electrical constructional fixtures, furnishing and fittings.
Some Peculiar Characteristics of the Construction Industry
1. It is the only industry where the product remains static and the
production unit is dynamic. This means that the constructed
Advocating for the Rights of Construction Workers
structure remains static and the whole unit involved in con-
struction process moves to the new site.
2. The construction process is of a complex nature and functions
in multilayers or multiphases. Each layer or phase involves a
different set of skilled and unskilled labour.
3. Although the industry is labour intensive, the principal em-
ployer remains totally invisible to a labourer on the site. The
whole process of employment ensures that the labourers are
hired for a short duration and is never aware who the main
4. In the absence of satisfactory regulatory requirements, entry
into the building and construction industry is relatively easy.
Moreover, capital required for entry into the business is not of
the same magnitude as required for other industries. There are
a large number of small and, big contractors engaged in build-
ing and construction activity ranging from a one-man team to
a multi-crore company employing hundreds of persons. Pre-
dictably, the birth and mortality rates of contracting firms are
5. The industry is also characterised by a general lack of training
facilities. The vast majority of workers, mostly women, remain
unskilled with hardly any scope of skill improvement and those
who acquire skills use a method of informal apprenticeship
with other skilled workers. Construction-specific technical
training or contractor training programmes, or, for that matter,
even an inventory of skills required in this industry is missing
or conspicuous by their absence.
Recruitment of Construction Workers
The construction workers mostly are of two categories: migrant labour
from the same state or other states and local labour available in the
slums. The construction industry absorbs construction workers in two
1. Direct entry to the construction site with a mukadam
overseer). The construction sites involving a long drawn proc-
ess of construction particularly employ migrants who come in
groups and are willing to stay on the site.
2. Employment through open labour market. These are local
labourers, both skilled and unskilled, who make themselves
available on a daily basis by waiting at the market place, known
850 Vaijayanta Anand
They offer their labour to the prospective employer
or contractor. They rarely take up work on the construction
sites. They are hired mainly in repairing and maintenance of
old constructed buildings and such smaller activities.
Plight of Construction Workers
The plight of the construction workers, specially the migrant labour,
draws our attention here. Usually the migrant workers are brought
from their native place by a petty contractor called mukadam
person is usually from the same place and sometimes belongs to the
same kinship. The mukadam
is given the responsibility to bring
labourers by the main contractor. For this service of providing labour,
he receives commission which he supplements with funds meant for
the workers (Joshi, 1987).
Although, most trades in the construction industry are covered
under the Minimum Wages Act, the workers do not receive the
minimum wages. Often the principal employer does not pay it and
usually the contractor deducts his cuts from the wages.
The work timings of the workers are long and uncertain. Since the
workers stay on the site, they are available for work round the clock.
Most of the workers are not paid wages, as such; they are paid kharchi,
that is subsistence allowance after every seven or fifteen days. The
final account is settled only after culmination of the work for the
season. No document is given to the workers to show that they are
engaged for work, or what wages they have earned, or how much they
have to recover from the employers. They are cheated rampantly. The
safety measures are minimal and many times remain unused. If the
working conditions are bad, the living conditions of these workers are
even worse. Their housing consists of make shift sheds. There is
usually limited and uncertain access to drinking water. Latrines are
Food and other necessities are even more expensive for the migrants
than for local workers. Often, being from another state, they have no
ration cards and have to buy food and provisions in small quantities,
which works out to be costlier.
It is essential to also look at the construction workers' problem with
a gender perspective. If the conditions are bad for male construction
workers, women suffer doubly or more than that. Women bear the
triple burden of work, home and children. Women are employed in
almost all the work related to the construction process, from foundation
Advocating for the Rights of Construction Workers
work to masonry and beyond. Women's work is mostly categorised as
unskilled and avenues for skill upgradation are almost non-existent.
Women help in carrying debris dug up at the excavation stage, carry
various types of building material, help in the erection of scaffolding,
and curing the floor by keeping it wet till it sets. At times, the wives of
male skilled workers work as assistants to their husbands. Since women
do not have a well defined role to play and absolutely no chance to take
up skilled tasks, their work is treated as menial, non-essential and of the
lowest nature in the whole process. They are paid less and face more job
insecurities than men (Cherian and Prasad, 1995).
Rights can be divided into two categories. One is the right as a citizen
enshrined in the Constitution. The other is the right endowed through
various Acts to any person who works for his/her livelihood. Construc-
tion workers, due to the peculiarity of their pattern of employment,
remain out of the purview of both sets of rights. Campaigning for their
rights has to emerge from a perspective that identifies the factors that
hinder the exercise of their rights.
The Constitution gives every citizen the right to vote. Construction
workers do not get to vote due to various problems like migration and
the temporary nature of stay. Communities of construction workers are
never counted as vote banks. This is also the reason for political leaders
keeping away from the issues related to construction workers.
There are various public services meant for all the citizens of India,
and there are special programmes for the poor. The construction
workers cannot avail of any of these facilities. Some of the facili-
ties/rights available to every citizen are unfortunately denied to con-
Public Distribution Services
Fair price shops are basically meant for people falling below the
poverty line. Construction workers form a large population earning
less than subsistence level. None of the workers can avail the facility
of the ration card due to various reasons. There is no provision of
temporary ration cards to the workers for the duration of stay on the
site. This is also not immediately possible as workers cannot prove
their identity as a migrant labourer since they are invariably not legally
registered. The contractor is unwilling to cooperate as the provision of
ration card is one way of recognising the status of workers. The ration
852 Vaijayanta Anand
card in recent times has come to be seen as an extremely important
document of identity to every citizen in India. In the absence of a ration
card, a worker remains an invisible entity.
The implication of this is felt more by the women. Their major time
goes in locating the nearest grocery and managing food items within
the restricted budget. Cooking fuel in the open market is expensive.
Health Facilities (Public Health Service)
Public hospitals are meant for poor patients. Health problems are the
constant recurring phenomenon of the construction workers' life. It is
a fact that Public Health Facilities do not have any kind of model which
caters to this labour force. The health services are inaccessible to
workers on the site. The OPD timings are not designed for the unor-
ganised sector workers. There are very few mobile health clinics and
they function at totally unsuitable timings. The local Primary Health
Centres or Urban Health Centres do not have any special health
package for the construction workers. The mobile health clinics, if
available, may not be accessible to workers at the right place and the
right time. Major health programmes like immunisation drives, family
health programmes, malaria eradication programmes, and so on never
reach the construction workers on the site.
Women bear the major brunt in the health area. Their health
deteriorates due to the triple burden of work, home and children.
Besides this, due to lack of access to the public hospitals or nursing
homes, majority of the women deliver their babies at home. Frequent
childbirths interspersed with miscarriages resulting from the hard and
heavy work definitely takes its toll.
Universalisation of 'Primary Education by 2000 AD' is also the most
popular slogan. Still, the educational services of government and NGO
sectors do not have any alternative model of the education for the
construction workers. The children are forced to remain out of educa-
tion arena sealing their future as unskilled or semiskilled construction
Construction workers today are totally out of the purview of the
banking system. Irregularity in payment of wages, and the hand to
mouth situation perpetuated by the contractor, keeps construction
Advocating for the Rights of Construction Workers
worker away from saving habits. The banks also do not have any kind
of schemes which will cater to these mobile construction workers.
Several Group Insurance Schemes, Saving Schemes, and Loan Facili-
ties meant for the poor are denied to the construction worker as he/she
cannot prove his/her identity.
Any fight or campaign for the rights of the workers will be futile
without considering the above given rights. The second dimension of
understanding the issue of rights is the worker's right as a labourer.
There are several acts applicable to the the construction workers.
Overall 27 labour laws are applicable to construction industry. None
of the provisions or measures are implemented. Taking advantage of
the worker's vulnerability as a migrant and temporary worker, the
social security measures and other welfare programmes meant as a part
of the worker's rights never get implemented.
There exists a plethora of labour laws, regulating work in the
construction industry. Some of the important legislations applicable to
construction workers are:
• Minimum Wages Act, 1948.
• Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act, 1970.
• Equal Remuneration Act, 1976.
• Payment of Gratuity Act, 1972.
• Interstate Migrant Workmen (Ref... of Employment and Condi-
tions of Service) Act, 1979.
• Employee's Provident Fund Act, 1952.
• Employees State Insurance Act, 1948.
Violations of labour laws applicable to construction workers are all
too common. What varies is the nature and extent of violation. In actual
practice, the workers in the construction industry are totally neglected,
hapless and helpless. Women are exploited to the maximum limit. The
invisible nature of the principal employer and the existing contract
system has facilitated the neglect. The nature of the industry, the
shifting employer-employee relationship, the seasonal and discon-
tinual nature of employment have resulted in the bulk of these workers
being denied their rights and benefits.
Women working under the category of unskilled labour never get
the fruits of the Maternity Benefit Act. They are also victims of gender
discrimination. Women are never paid minimum wages and are also
underpaid violating the Equal Remuneration Act. Creche facilities
are provided only where NGOs like Mobile Creches come forward.
854 Vaijayanta Anand
Contractors never take the initiative to provide anything like a creche
Women work till their day of delivery which mostly takes place on
the site under the supervision of older women or the mukadam 's
She rejoins work a few days after delivery. The child is left in the care
of older siblings or in a shade on the site by itself. She barely gets a
break to feed her child or to regain her health.
Another area of concern is the high accident rate in the industry.
Even though there are extensive safety guidelines and codes prescribed
regarding operations such as excavating, blasting operations, erection
of pre-fabricated parts, working on heights and on, towers, use of
scaffolds, safety belts, ladders, and so on workers continue to work
unguided, unaware of hazards and saving themselves only by instinct
or intuition. Since they are constantly under the threat of unemploy-
ment, the workers primary concern is to earn as much as possible, even
at great personal risk. The contractor does not implement any of the
prescribed procedures to ensure the safety of the workers. As a result
workers suffer chronic health problems which can be termed as occu-
pation health hazards. Besides these, a number of accidents do take
place. Most of the accidents, including the fatal ones, do not always
get reported to the authorities concerned. Workers rarely get compen-
sation. A worker not only loses his/her job, but also has no means to
subsist or sustain himself/ herself during the period of incapacitation.
In the case of accidents, the normal reaction of the contractor is to
disown responsibility or to get away from it. In case he cannot get
away, he would try to hush up the matter by paying some money to
the family or shifting the victim to the hospital. Many times the
affected person lies in the hospital with helpless relatives or alone
without any kind of follow up by the contractor. Sometimes he/she
may die due to lack of timely financial and medical aid (Davala, 1994).
Efforts in Campaigning for the Rights of the Construction
Unionisation or campaigning for the rights of the construction workers
is an uphill task. There are very few organisations and trade unions
today in this field. Trade unions have played a role in campaigning for
the rights of workers in the organised sector. However, construction
workers do not form a popular target group for unionising. Some
organisations like 'Mobile Creches' have attempted to provide welfare
services like creches and education for this group. Except for some
Advocating for the Rights of Construction Workers
notable initiatives undertaken by the 'Nirman Mazdoor Panchayat',
'Tamil Nadu Manila Katida Thozhildar Sangham' and few trade
unions in other cities, the scenario at the national level has been dismal.
The only praiseworthy effort at the national level has been the formation
of the National Campaign Committee For Construction Labour set up in
1985, and National Federation for Construction Labour set up by various
construction workers' organisations — both non-political and political;
concerned individuals such as lawyers and activists; and a large
number of construction workers from all over the country. A model
bill and a scheme was drafted by this Committee.
Why is unionisation or organisation of workers in the construction
industry so difficult? The obvious reasons could be listed as:
1. The labour force is fragmented in terms of regions, languages,
skills and locations of work. They do not form a homogeneous
2. The labour force, though large in size, is always employed in
smaller groups and for short durations. This leaves very little
time for coming together.
3. The cost of the labour force, especially on the site, consists of
poor migrants. Illiteracy and a feudal relationship with the
contractor makes them vulnerable and fearful of seeking or
accepting external help.
4. The isolation of workers is systematically perpetuated as the
workers stay on the site and remain alienated from the local
5. The principal employer, contractors and mukadams
close watch on the workers and do not encourage any outsider
attempting to work on any issue. It is sometimes difficult to
even collect information or talk to construction workers.
In spite of all this, some NGOs have tried working out some viable
models of intervention which, in a way, has helped in campaigning for
the rights of the construction workers. One such NGO is 'Nirman', an
organisation working in Mumbai for 10 years.
Nirman, a project for migrant construction workers was initiated in
1986 by the College of Social Work, Mumbai, as a field action project
for social work students. Its foundational work was built through the
field experiences of faculty members and students at the Mobile
Creches, a social work agency for the welfare of the children of
856 Vaijayanta Anand
construction workers. The main thrust of Nirman has been to develop
strategies and models of intervention so that the rights of the workers
can be protected. The work of Nirman can be divided into three phases.
This was the initial phase where Nirman adopted a non-controversial
approach. The objective was to develop rapport with the construction
workers through welfare activities and also study various problems of
the construction worker. The attempt in this phase was to explore the
living conditions of construction workers and study the dynamics of
the construction industry. Through programmes like pre-school edu-
cation, adult education, health education and recreational activities, the
organisation was able to establish rapport on few sites. This phase was
typically marked with geographical area-wise intervention with the
aim of understanding the nature of the exploitative system. The strong
need for bringing workers from different sites together was felt. Some
attempts were made in this direction. The seeds of developing a trade
union for the workers was sowed in this phase. The first phase took
This phase was marked by intense, work with construction workers and
the launching of a trade union movement. The objective in this phase
was to identify specific issues and mobilise workers to fight for their
Formation of Nirman Mazdoor Sanghatna (NMS)
In 1990, while working on one of the government sites in Mumbai, the
workers from the site expressed their problems such as non- payment
of minimum wages and equal wages for equal work. Nirman felt the
need to organise these workers in campaigning for their right to 'just'
wages. The Nirman Mazdoor Sanghatna, a trade union, was launched
while fighting on this issue. The new union could obtain a stay order
from the court and file a petition which resulted in job security to some
extent, assuring of minimum wages and equal wages. Nirman also
entered the area of naka
workers or street corner labourers in this
phase. The welfare activities for adults and children were also contin-
ued in the same areas. Through the Mazdoor Sanghatna, Nirman was
able to get some basic amenities like water, toilet, electricity, and so
on, on some sites.
Advocating for the Rights of Construction Workers
The Nirman Mazdoor Sanghatna brought up a lot of difficult issues
to the fore. The need for legal expertise was strongly felt. The suste-
nance of motivation of the workers proved to be a very difficult task.
The opposition of the builder and the contractor resulted in physical
threats to the Nirman activists and of the Nirman Mazdoor Sanghatna.
Gradually the workers' active participation in the Nirman Mazdoor
could be seen waning. Lack of proper infrastructure and a broader base
of labour force was acutely felt. Nirman, as an NGO, tried to sustain
the trade union for four gruelling years. In 1994, the Sanghatna was
registered under the Trade Union Act of 1926, and had separated from
the parent body, Nirman. One of the activists took the responsibility
of running the union. Presently, the union is still grappling with the
legal tangles of the case filed in 1990 and attempting to take up similar
Nirman did not limit itself to micro-level interventions but also
reached out at the macro-level for policy changes. Nirman campaigned
with other interested organisations, trade unions and concerned indi-
viduals for a central legislation for construction workers. One of its
venture has been to initiate and support the National Campaign Com-
mittee for Central Legislation and (NCC-CL) and the National Fed-
eration of Construction Labourers (NFCL). One of the major demands
of NCC-CL is the formation of Tripartite Construction Labour Boards
to regulate employment conditions of workers. The Board aims at:
• compulsory registration of the employers and the employee;
• equitable distribution of work, resources and responsibility; and
• regulation of employees working conditions and the inclusion of
benefits, minimum wages and social security for the employees.
Another part of campaigning has been to conduct intense research
and develop rich documentation on the construction industry. In the
year 1993, a study on Open Labour Market (naka
workers) in Mumbai
was conducted with the help of the Labour Department. The study was
published by the then Labour Commissioner. The study was found to
be informative as it reached the various labour organisations, institu-
tions, libraries and NGOs.
Phase 3 (Present Stage)
This phase is marked by intense soul searching and dialogue by the
staff of Nirman and the College of Social Work, Nirmala Niketan, with
a view in shaping Nirman as a sensitive body responding to the needs
of the construction workers.
858 Vaijayanta Anand
As the Nirman Mazdoor Sanghatna became an independent body,
Nirman decided to develop a fresh approach whereby issues could be
tackled both at the micro- and macro-level in a more comprehensive
way. It was strongly felt that research and documentation in this
unorganised sector was severely lacking. Hence, in 1995, Nirman
initiated a research study on 'Socio-Demographic and Health Profile
of Construction Workers on the Construction Sites of New Bombay'.
The study with the active support of City Industrial and Development
Corporation (CIDCO), the town planning and implementation body of
Navi Mumbai, was for purposes of assessment and gaining entry.
While the study was in process, Nirman entered into a kind of reflec-
tion and rethinking regarding intervention strategies adopted to date.
The experiences revealed that the organisation of workers cannot
happen in a social vacuum. The construction workers need to be made
visible to the various service sectors, government machinery and
general masses. It became obvious that it is futile organising and
struggling for worker's rights without developing models of interven-
tions which are workable. Nirman, as an NGO, set out to help building
the bridge between various services and workers, needs, with the aim
to boost the morale of the workers.
A valuable relationship was also built with the managers, engineers
and builders. Based on the needs which were either expressed by the
workers and also observed by the Nirman staff, certain activities were
taken up. These activities later took a concrete shape with well-thought
out intervention strategies, with the following objectives:
• Developing different models of problem solving intervention
with construction workers.
• Creating a network of supportive programmes involving various
government and non-governmental organisations to address dif-
ferent needs of the construction workers.
• Networking with various government and non-governmental
agencies at the micro- and macro- level to advocate for suitable
policies and programmes.
• Creating a strong data-base by conducting research and collect-
ing extensive information related to this field.
Some of the observations during the study were as follows:
1. In the area of health, Navi Mumbai has a health set up initiated
by Navi Mumbai Municipal Corporation (NMMC). It has a
hospital, urban health centres, primary health centre, mother
and child health clinics in different nodes which provide all the
Advocating for the Rights of Construction Workers
health facilities to the public at minimal cost. They also have a
separate Malaria Eradication Cell. During the study, it was
observed that there are two mobile health vans supposed to be
covering some construction sites but were in the process of
being discontinued. Malaria eradication workers did not cover
all the sites routinely. This means that construction workers
were totally out of the purview of Navi Mumbai's health set
up. The study also brought out this point strongly that construc-
tion workers were totally at the mercy of the private doctors.
Some of the larger construction sites also boasted of doctors
appointed by the builder. They gave negligible health services
to the workers. An immunisation drive in 1995 did not have
any separate programme for covering construction sites spread
all over Navi Mumbai.
2. Occupational health hazards were the most neglected area. On
many sites, construction workers barely used any safety equip-
ments. Many sites did not even have first aid kits. The workers
and even engineers were totally ignorant of the first aid infor-
mation necessary in the cise of accidents. A visit to the public
hospital in Navi Mumbai revealed that construction workers
who were accident victims were left unattended by the contrac-
tors. It is not rare to find accident victims, who are alone in
Mumbai, dying in the hospital and their bodies remaining
unclaimed. The contractor fails to enquire at the hospital or
intimate the relatives.
3. Navi Mumbai has some Zilla Parishad schools attached to some
villages. But construction workers children are rarely enrolled
in any of the schools. The Mobile Creche project functions only
on some sites and caters to very few families.
Health, therefore, was one area where an intervention model was
necessary. The Nirman staff realised that workers can avail of all the
health facilities available through government and non-government
sources, provided these facilities are remodelled and redesigned to suit
the needs of the workers. This meant a three pronged approach. The
NMMC health set up required to be sensitised towards the special
needs of the workers so that public health services reached construc-
tion workers more effectively. At the same time, it was essential to
work with the workers and provide them with information so that they
could actively participate in availing the facilities. The third approach
was to work with the employers, both builders and the petty contractors
860 Vaijayanta Anand
as well as engineers, and managers so that they could also see their
role in providing health facilities to the workers on the site itself. Based
on this approach, the following activities were undertaken since 1995
with the NMMC health department:
1. The NMMC health department was persuaded to extend the
'National Immunisation Drive' to the construction workers'
2. The Mother and Child Health Centre at Turbhe and Nirman
jointly organised a special medical camp on a Sunday in the
year 1997 for women and children of 'Mass Housing Construc-
tion Site'. At present Nirman is trying to organise regular
programmes with Mother and Child Health Centres so that
some programmes for construction workers can be taken up by
the health centre for regular implementation.
3. The local PHC 'Mobile Van' meant for the construction sites
were being underutilised. An attempt was made to create an
awareness of this facility among workers on one site and help
them to utilise these services.
4. Initially a few specific malaria detection camps were organised
involving local PHCs. Today the PHCs regularly conduct
malaria detection camps on the sites taking very little help from
5. In the year 1997 and 1998, two to three areas like malaria
awareness, AIDS awareness and reproductive health related
activities for women were taken up. After one or two pro-
grammes the NMMC staff and the malaria detection staff have
expressed willingness to take help from Nirman and conduct
similar programmes independently. This has gone a long way
in the detection of cases and follow up.
Intervention with the NMMC was a long and arduous process.
Initially the Nirman staff faced scepticism and resistance. The Medical
Health Officer and the Assistant Medical Health Officer were the first
people who got convinced with the ideas. Simultaneously, the local
PHC staff were contacted on regular basis. Programmes conducted by
Nirman were like demonstrations for the NMMC to design their
intervention for construction workers. The professional social workers
of the public hospital at Vashi were also involved in some programmes.
This process, initiated by Nirman, yielded results. Till 1996 Nirman
could enter only the construction sites under CIDCO. From 1997
onwards, Nirman was able to enter private sites due to NMMC health
Advocating for the Rights of Construction Workers
department's collaboration. Today, construction workers' health is-
sues are identified by Nirman and solutions are worked out in such a
way that NMMC can take them up on a long term basis.
Activities with Workers
Various activities were taken up with workers directly. This involved
organising a first aid training programme, malaria awareness and
AIDS awareness programmes. On one of the sites, a workers group
enthused by the information given, developed their own first aid box
which was emulated by some other construction workers' groups.
These training programmes were accompanied by special medical
camps to detect occupational diseases. Besides malaria, other prob-
lems like hydrocil among men were identified and dealt with.
Oven a period of time, Nirman staff has realised that orientation
visits to all the government facilities available in the vicinity need to
be organised on a regular basis. This is a major step in bringing workers
out of their isolated status. The workers gain confidence to take
decisions about treatment independently. This also means breaking
one of the chains tying them to the contractor.
Snowball effect of such activities could be seen on many sites.
Workers could be seen taking up accident cases more assertively even
to the extent of stopping work for better bargaining in compensation
In this process, builders and contractors have played a passive role.
They allow Nirman staff to take up activities and on many sites they
welcome such activities. The scepticism and antagonism is less as the
issue is related to health. On one site the construction company felt
pressurised enough by the medical camp results to appoint one more
lady doctor for women.
Other Intervention Attempts
1. Similar interventions are being tried out in the area of skill
upgradation of the workers. The Nirman staff is playing an
active role in identifying several skill areas and approaching
the existing training institutes to design programmes suitable
to the construction workers' needs. At present a few training
programmes are being planned with the Shramik Vidyapeeth
and the National Institute for Construction Management and
862 Vaijayanta Anand
The Nirman staff has also been able to work with a nearby Zilla
Parishad school, on one of the sites. Joint meetings were
organised involving construction workers, their children and
teachers of Zilla Parishad, to work out viable education pattern
for these children.
3. An attempt is also being made to extend the Apna Bazaar
Cooperative Market Mobile Van Service to the site so that
workers can get better food items at cheaper rates. Besides this,
the Nirman staff is aiming at introducing ration cards for the
construction workers, at least on a temporary basis.
4. On one site the Nirman staff was able to work with one bank
and help some workers in opening their accounts. This was an
uphill task but was very much appreciated by workers. In
future, the plan is to introduce various group insurance facilities
and other financial schemes so that workers can free themselves
from the clutches of money lenders who are generally the
5. Various cultural programmes, outings and even sports compe-
titions have helped in bringing workers of different states
together and also reduced the tension between the engineers,
contractors and workers.
Campaigning for the rights of the construction workers will be effec-
tive and yield results if the construction workers actively participate
in the process. The construction workers need to be brought out of their
helpless, isolated state and to be able to think independently. Several
issues like health, education and skill upgradation need to be tackled
not as welfare activities but as part of the campaign for the rights at
their workplace. Struggles for better wages, and better working con-
ditions cannot yield result only by formation of trade unions or
cooperatives. Thus, viable, workable solutions must be evolved. Non-
governmental organisations like Nirman can play an active role in
developing demonstrative models of intervention which can be
adopted by the governmental agencies and the construction compa-
nies. The trade union movement will gain impetus in the unorganised
sector only if such NGO interventions take place. The actual partici-
pation of workers at all levels in organising is possible if they have an
informed choice, they are not fearful of the contractors and can draw
strength from the broader base of labour force.
Advocating for the Rights of Construction Workers
Cherian, J. and
Women, Work and Inequity.The Reality of Gender,
Delhi: National Labour Institute.
Davala, S. (Ed.)
Unprotected Labour in India: Issues and Concerns,
Delhi: Friedrich Ebert Stiftung.,
Joshi, V. (Ed.)
Migrant Labour and Related Issues,