I have been studying the building and construction workers in Bangalore as a part of an academic research for over six months now. The study emerges from a simple observation that many of us might have made commuting around in this city – that 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? Turns out there is!
The Building and Other Construction Workers Act (BOCW), 1996 was made to address this situation. This category of workers have worked and lived in appalling conditions forever and the BOCW act was brought into force to improve their situation as a class of workers in the country. Then, did it work to improve their condition should be our next question. This is where we hit the classic Indian condition of having adequate legal provision but little implementation and consequently ineffective law. While this can be analysed in several different ways, I choose to ask a normative question on the understanding of ‘labour welfare’ by the judiciary. This is because the BOCW Act proposes to take care of the workers’ welfare by extending social security benefits to them. These benefits are essentially about financial assistance provided to registered workers under eight different schemes. There are 13,00,000 construction workers in Bangalore according to the Karnataka BOCW Welfare Board estimates. Out of these, 250,000 are registered with the board and therefore deemed as ‘covered’ with social security benefits. Among these registered workers the most popular scheme is financial assistance for education, maternity assistance and funeral assistance in that order!
Sociology of law is a poorly developed discipline in India. Legal analysis often does not account for the social contexts in which the law operates. Its relevance to the contemporary dynamics of labour productivity, migration and their economic contribution makes me consider a sociological enquiry in this issue. The country can no longer afford to neglect its construction workers which forms a substantial part of the unskilled labour force employed in the construction sector and which in fact is the driving force of the sector – not machinery and certainly not capital. A case in point is the Commonwealth Games 2010 in New Delhi. Over Rs.70000 Crores were provided only for improving the city infrastructure and sports facilities. When the work was at peak in mid-May, 2008 to mid-May, 2009, more than one lakh workers were employed in all these projects.
Their welfare must be of immediate concern to the state governments because – first, they are a major group of workers who rank low on human development measures like income, healthcare, education and skills. Second, that the neglect that they have lived through in the 1990s and 2000s which were the famed years of India’s economic success story, has alienated them from considering themselves a part of the society as well as of the growth story which the country so wishes to tout as ‘inclusive’. Here the law is directly linked to social and economic aspects of the construction workers lives. This is also evident in Durkheim’s theorization of the relationship of law to the forms of sociality. He says: “The visible symbol of social solidarity (conceived as a solidarity in fact, that is, a form of solidarity) is the Law,” and adds: ‘Hence we can be sure of finding all the essential varieties of social solidarity reflected in the Law’.
Now, when the law itself doesn’t encompass the values of dignity of labour and welfare as a comprehensive set of enabling conditions that makes a worker feel secure and safe his work environment then what possibilities of him to be reflect even traces of social solidarity. In addition to this the workers are in many cases the flotsam and jetsam of a certain kind of economic growth where it has ceased to be anything beyond an exercise in identifying development by numbers and percentages. All the workers we interviewed during the study were migrants. Therefore, we suggest that there is disconnect in the way the act articulates its goals and has set guidelines for the states to then provide for the welfare of the construction workers. The act discounts the social world that the construction workers inhabit. To interpret their social security as financial assistance is incomplete. Contrast this with the social security bundle of white collar workers which comprise of benefits like provident fund, right to a clean, safe workplace, strict enforcement of building safety compliance, maternity benefits to women employees, crèches, tax sops, food coupons etc. The question of explaining such divergence of benefits between these classes of workers may not concern private enterprises but must in all aspects concern the law.
An enquiry into this law and poor state of welfare of the workers reveals problems on several fronts from economic relationship between employer and the workers to labour rights. What type of change in the status quo is likely to bring about a positive change in the situation and where does one begin thinking about it – are the questions that must be dealt with in order to have a broad based change than a mere sharpening of the act. A divergence from the conventional view which argues that law should not be seen as working through the modern types of courts or police is of significance here.
Reciprocity as a moral norm can make a significant difference to the understanding of construction workers’ relationship with the society at large. Malinowski observes that reciprocity is the binding force in the society. Everyone has to render adequate services to others lest others may withdraw or reduce their service for him. Reciprocity is a key intervening variable (gated link) which through which shared social rules are enabled to yield social stability. On a normative front this appears to be a moral yet practical position that one can take to view labour welfare in the modern society and go about effecting appropriate rules to guarantee a minimal standard of living and work conditions at par with the national average that exists in the country today.