A few months back, I was studying the Building and Other Construction Workers Act, 1996 which is the first formal and exclusive piece of legislation which provides for social welfare of the construction workers in India. Questions explored were – what explains such poor work, health and social conditions in which the construction workers live? Is there no law which guarantees minimum work and social conditions to them? Highlights of the study are on the poster here and we suggested that the state (governments at the center and state level) should own up the responsibility to provide for this class of workers as well, just as the way it does for others. The paper parked its findings with the title Rethinking welfare when builders take care of the workers . In the wake of the latest amendment to the BOCW Act, 1996 and a commentary in EPW I find it fascinating that the state’s role is imagined very differently when it comes to blue collar workers and particularly the construction workers.
A recent piece by Vidhya Soundararajan under commentary in EPW suggests that the employers should be charged with the responsibility of registering the workers. I have made an argument which is pretty much the reverse of what she suggests. Her understanding appears to be based on the registrations, claims and cess utilization statistics that she has sourced from various states. While the aggregate number might make her suggestion of making registration employer’s responsibility, my understanding suggests that this will not work, to put it mildly. More strongly, I think it will distort the already skewed employer-worker relationship. How? By burdening the employer with more responsibilities, which should have been most certainly shouldered by the respective state governments. Why is it that all sorts of formal workers are very well covered by the state governments and when it comes to the “informal” sector workers they wash themselves off?
The state must own up the responsibility just as the way it provides for and cares for the other classes of its workers. And if builders/employers are to take care of the workers then watch out for more trouble from informalization, labour exploitation and perhaps a larger impact on hiring, contracting and infrastructure projects. A good case is Gujarat where although the state has shown positive net growth in economic output, but at the same time has shown no improvement in wages and welfare of the labourers. I strongly believe that it is the State’s responsibility and it cannot be indifferent to this class of workers while at the same time provide the other classes of workers with all the benefits. This will only sow more seeds of discord and alienation.