Sunday, October 17, 2010

Workers denied minimum wages at construction sites in Delhi are not complaining as they have few options - Sreelatha Menon

The migrant workers who were all over Delhi at the various work sites related to the Commonwealth Games are long gone. Those who linger at the incomplete projects are a reminder of the poor returns workers in the informal sector get for hard physical labour.

Madho, one of the 200 workers employed to build a ten-storeyed parking lot at Baba Kharag Singh Marg, is still there, a reminder of those who have been there before him for the last five or six years at different construction sites related to the event. The parking lot was planned along with other Games projects but has dragged on.

Madho, who came from a village in Azamgarh a month ago, earns Rs 100 a day, less than half the minimum wage of Rs 203 in Delhi. He says he is given food thrice a day by the contractor and an extra Rs 50 if he skips any meal.

On most days, he works for 12 hours, for which he gets Rs 100 over and above his wage. This is half the Rs 200 overtime he should get. Madho says he knows this. But he has few options. He has virtually been bought by the contractor.

The contractor has already paid money for a month-and-a-half to his family. He occasionally gets a hundred or two as a stipend for daily expenses. His transportation and food needs are also taken care of. Labour laws don’t apply here, for he is not on the rolls of the builder, in this case DLF. His employer is a contractor who is not answerable to anyone.

The 200 workers at the site, for instance, had some 20 different contractors. The Centre for Indian Trade Unions says most workers deployed for various projects related to the Commonwealth Games are bonded labourers.

The fact that these workers have been forced to work at half the minimum wage has been the subject of litigation, with an NGO, People’s Union for Democratic Rights, moving the Delhi High Court on the matter. PUDR says the employers and their contractors have gained Rs 360 crore a year by not paying an estimated 40,000 workers their minimum wages.

The Delhi High Court asked the employers, including Delhi Metro Rail Corporation, New Delhi Municipal Corporation, Municipal Corporation of Delhi and others to register the workers and ensure they got their rightful wages. Madho says his pictures have been taken for the purpose.

This may be an example of modern-day bonded labour. In the absence of any worker union taking these migrants under their fold, it may be dark ages for them. But forced labour may not be as bad as unpaid labour. Otherwise, why do these workers let themselves be bought by contractors despite the government of India providing 100 days work on demand under the National Rural employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) in their respective villages?

And that too at Rs 100 a day? Workers like Madho can vouch for the fact that few NREGA workers have been able to get work on demand and fewer still are paid fully and on time. Contractors at least pay in advance even if it is less than what they deserve. Madho would, therefore, prefer to be bonded than unpaid labour any day.

business-standard - 17/10/2010

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