But even as they expressed alarm at the conditions of Indian workers in Qatar, labour experts noted that the world’s highest number of construction deaths is actually recorded in India and that attempts to provide a social safety net for workers in the building sector have failed to take off.
Though the Indian government does not keep centralised records on construction workers, death and injury from accidents in the Indian building sector is widespread, noted a paper by academician Sarbeswara Sahoo prepared for a national workshop on safety, health and welfare measures for construction workers organised two years ago at the Mahatma Gandhi Labour Institute in Ahmedabad. “India has the world’s highest accident rate among construction workers,” he said, quoting a survey by the International Labour Organisation that stated that 165 out of every 1,000 construction workers suffers an injury while at work.
“Workers in this industry face a lot of health issues,” Sahoo said. “They have spinal cord problems because of the weight they carry, back issues, respiratory problems because of the amount of dust around them. Their living quarters are not hygienic and they are packed together in small spaces.”
His paper also pointed out long-term health hazards. “There is a very serious risk of cancer from the handling of asbestos," Sahoo said. "Equally alarming is the number of workers who succumb to dust-related illnesses, asbestosis, silicosis, mostly in the process of raw materials for construction.”
However, India’s estimated 45 million construction workers lack a social security net.
“Construction workers have been demanding social security for years,” said Sahoo. “But as they are not contractual employees, they have never been eligible for social security schemes.”
This might change with a proposal being discussed very seriously at the Employees’ State Insurance Corporation. The ESIC, which was established in 1952 to provide for factory and company employees, is India's largest social security provider. It provides medical and social benefits to employees of all establishments, private or otherwise, that employ a minimum of ten people.
“Over the past 15-20 years, ESIC’s scope has grown to the extent that we can seriously think of giving [construction] workers social security,” said BK Sahu, Insurance Commissioner (Revenue) at the Employees’ State Insurance Corporation, who is pitching for the proposal.
At present, construction worker welfare is taken care of by state-governed Construction Workers Welfare Boards across the country. These boards are supposed to disburse old age pensions, medical benefits, housing loans and insurance premiums to all workers registered with them.
However, while boards across India had accumulated over Rs 11,127 crore as of September 2013, they had spent only about Rs 1,448 crore on the workers for whom these funds were intended.
This, it seems, is the fault of contractors.
“Contractors are supposed to provide labourers with compensation and medical help if they ever have an accident, but this can be enforced only if they are registered,” said Pradeep Shinde, an assistant professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University. “Not only do contractors make sure labourers are not registered, they also avoid those who have been.”
Labourers who know about government schemes are thus caught between the long-term benefits of registration and the short-term reality of being refused work.
In order to bring them under the ESIC’s umbrella, Sahu hopes to get administrative offices of construction agencies to register them. While he acknowledges this will be immensely difficult, he hopes contractors will be less hesitant in urging their employees to register with the ESIC than with local state boards. “It’s a win-win situation. They register the construction workers, but we pay them benefits,” he said.
Sahu’s proposal only requires the sanction of the corporation to be implemented, which means this could very well become a reality.
The scheme will give workers basic social security, especially during the monsoon when most building activities cease.
Construction work is migratory by nature. Sahu believes that the ESIC will be able to provide better security than state boards, if only because it functions across the country. “If someone from Lucknow is working from Delhi, as long as he is registered with us, he will continue to get social security benefits at his home town,” said Sahu. “It will no longer matter where he is working.”
However, Sahu's proposal will not improve working conditions on site, which remains one of the most serious problems faced by labourers today. Labourers themselves do not realise that they have even basic rights to safety on their sites, let alone social and economic benefits they can avail of off-site.
“When contractors are organising work, the most important factor becomes cost,” said Bino Paul, assistant professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences. “And when you’re trying to be competitive, the first thing you cut down on is living conditions.”
Whatever the flaws of his proposal, Sahu says it will be a massive step for the ESIC towards expanding social security coverage to all citizens. “Social security is slowly but surely going to become universal,” he said. “It is inevitable. You already have a national health insurance scheme that works across the country. We have to be dynamic and visionary. We can’t run the government based on a situation relevant 20 years ago.”