By Mahesh Gajera*
Women construction workers clock in 17 hours of work a day – across construction sites, in their households, and in accessing basic facilities – leading to adverse consequences for their physical and mental well-being. Over the course of these 17 hours, they walk 10 kilometres, and lift and carry 3,000 kilograms. They only get to rest for 40 minutes during the entire day.
- More than 80 percent of women construction workers in Ahmedabad are also migrant workers from the marginalised Adivasi communities ofGujarat, southern Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.
- They are restricted to performing most menial, strenuous and low-end jobs at construction sites, including digging, lifting and carrying heavy materials, and collecting water. They are severely under-represented in male dominated skilled trades such as carpentry, masonry and plumbing.
Two case studies
Shantaben, 45 years old, lives on a pavement in Ahmedabad city. She migrated with her 5-member family from Dahod, Gujarat. Despite migrating to Ahmedabad for more than 20 years now, Shantaben remains excluded from the most basic services in the city. “I wake up at 3:30 AM every morning, and spend around an hour looking for a functional pay and use toilet. If I’m delayed, I will not be able to finish my household chores in order to reach the labour naka in time to find work”.
She spends almost 4 hours in the morning, collecting water, cooking for her family, washing clothes, and cleaning. There is not much time left to tend to herself. She wolfs down her breakfast in 5 minutes, and changes her clothes behind a parked car. At the work, she is expected to clean the site before work commences. Within half an hour, she has already lifted and carried 10 bags of soil weighing 25 kilograms each, and some cement bags weighing 20 kilograms!She filters sand, fills soil in sacks, mixes material, lifts and carries the material, throughout the day. Shanta ben says that even 5 minutes of rest after difficult work is rare at a construction site.
For the backbreaking work that she performed at the construction site, she receives only Rs. 300. As for the long hours of household work, she receives nothing. She is constantly worried about whether she will be able to finish her work on time, find work for the day, and if her family is taken care of!
Somaben, 24 years old, has migrated to Ahmedabad from Banswara, Rajasthan, with her husband and 3 young children.Somaben lives and works in a construction site in Ahmedabad. She wakes up very early to use the field near the site for open defecation.She then proceeds to bathe, but the bathing spaces at the site do not have doors. If she is late, the area will be full of male workers, and will have to endure vulgar comments and lecherous stares.
She then moves on to household chores, simultaneously cooking, cleaning, collecting water, buying provisions from the market, and taking care of her three children. She breast-feeds her 2 months old baby, for only 5 minutes before she has to attend to another task. Living at the construction site means extra hours of work, as the contractor can demand work at all hours.
She ties together a swing from sheets of cloth for her baby to sleep near where she is working before work begins. She spends the entire day lifting and carrying heavy cement to and from where the male skilled worker was working. In between work, she runs to feed her children, receiving only 15 minutes during the workday to rest. She is able to take only one toilet break throughout the day. In spite of lifting and carrying cement for more than 8 hours, in addition to cleaning the site, her work is valued very little. Once she returns to her room, she once again engages in household chores late into the night, receiving only Rs. 250 a day for the burden of work that she carries in the city.
Aajeevika Bureau conducted in-depth interviews of 43 migrant women construction workers in Ahmedabad city to understand the burden of work, the different factors that contribute to longer and more strenuous work hours, as well as other vulnerabilities faced by them. The study included 24-hour time use surveys, as well as in-depth interviews, non-participant observations and focus group discussions with women workers.
Women construction workers are usually family based migrants, who live either in makeshift rooms within the construction site, or in open spaces around the city: on pavements, under flyovers, near railway tracks etc. Both their conditions of work, as well as the lack of assets and basic facilities at the worksites and living spaces have a large impact on their wellbeing.
- Women spend 17 hours a day working, across (a) paid work at construction sites; (b) unpaid, care work at their living spaces; or (c) accessing basic facilities such as sanitation, travelling to the naka or worksite etc. Over the course of these 17 hours, they walk 10 kilometres, and lift and carry 3,000 kilograms.
- They spend 8 hours working at the construction site, and an additional 30 minutes performing gender based work at the site, including washing the tools, cleaning the workspace etc after the men have left the worksite. Those living on site can be called to work at any hour of the day by the contractor, sometimes as early as 8AM, and past midnight, working much more than the stipulated 8 hours.
- They spend 5 hours on household reproduction and care work alone, including cooking, cleaning, washing clothes, childcare etc.
- They spend 3.5 hours on accessing basic facilities such as sanitation, water, walking to and from the naka or worksite, or in wrapping and un-wrapping their household every morning.
Lack of access to basic facilities at living spaces
- Women spend 2.5 hours on cooking, as they do not have appropriate cooking facilities. They cook on poor quality, damp firewood.
- They spend one hour every morning before work accessing toilets. This is particularly true for women living in open spaces. They are forced to wake up between 3:30 to 4 AM, before daylight, and before men wake up in order to find a functional pay and use toilet. This makes them vulnerable to harassment.
- They spend half an hour collecting water. They then carry heavy 20 litre canisters of water back and forth from their living spaces. For women who live in open spaces, time spent on water collection goes up to 45 minutes. They take water from taps in nearby private homes or apartment buildings, but this source of water is not guaranteed every day.
- They spend atleast one hour every day travelling to and from the naka or worksite due to a lack of safe or affordable transport options. They are able to call an auto in the rare case that the contractor provides them money for transportation.
- Women workers living in open spaces have the additional task of packing and unpacking their household every day. They spend one hour every day wrapping their assets and hiding them from thieves or from those who might come to evict them.
Impacts on health
- Pregnant women spend upto 8 months of their pregnancy working in the city. They are made to lift the same amount of weights, and perform the same strenuous tasks. They go back to the village to perform their delivery as there is no social support system in the city, but are forced to come back and work within 15 days of delivery with their infant, as they cannot afford to stop earning.
- Women living in open spaces reveal that they are forced to go for work even when they are ill, as they do not feel safe in the open when their husbands or male relatives are away for work.
- They avoid going to the hospital, as it means that their husband would also have to take a day off work, and forfeit wages. In any case, accessing healthcare costs them between Rs. 350-1000 in the city for a single visit.
- Women interviewed report pain in their limbs and joints, severe headaches, and abdominal pain. They attribute this to the heavy weights that they have to lift throughout the day and lack of rest.
Impact on childcare
- Women are able to spend only 35 minutes a day exclusively on childcare, such as feeding, bathing, grooming or playing with the childcare, having adverse impacts on early childhood care.
- Deliveries on site, and miscarriages are reported on construction sites, but the large number of women and children at construction sites across the city remain completely invisible and outside the coverage of government mandated maternal and childcare, especially ante/post natal care and vaccinations.
- On an average, women are able to breastfeed their children only 2 to 3 times during the work day, for 5 minutes each time. They often resort to feeding toddlers fried chips in order to satiate their hunger.
Poor conditions at work
- Women are most likely found in Reinforced Cement Concrete (RCC) work at construction sites. This means repetitive tasks, of lifting and carrying construction materials up and down steps and over distances. They lift and carry 5,680 kgs during their workday. They climb 480 steps, and walk a distance of 4km while carrying loads as heavy as 35kg at a time.
- Male workers performing the same work are not expected to lift and carry materials, they are only responsible for filling the materials, operating the machine, or helping the masons.
- Women workers in RCC work do not get any breaks during their workshift, and are allowed to stop only when the machine stops. They work continuously for upto 12 hours. If they break for going to the toilet, or to take care of their children, they are often screamed at by the contractor or skilled workers.
- Women who live on site are often forced to work longer hours than those who live in open spaces. They start working as early as 8AM, and are sometimes required to work long past midnight, as and when the site supervisor requires them to work.
- 80 percent of the women interviewed reported that there are no functional toilets at the worksite. They report that they only go to the toilet 1-2 times during the day.
- Construction sites do not have any safe place for the care of workers’ children. Women often leave their young babies on swings at the hazardous construction site. The older children are left to wander the site in great danger of sharp objects, or falling from heights.
- Despite their substantial numbers, and their significant labour contribution to the construction industry’s exponential growth, and the infrastructural development of the city, they are not assured access to basic facilities at their worksite or in their living spaces, including toilets, drinking water, or safe spaces for their children. This has multiple implications for women workers: it increases their burden of work, exposes them to greater harassment and violence, and has consequences for their health.
- Employers in the construction industry, as well as the government remain blind towards their plight. Aajeevika Bureau’s study seeks to inform employers and the government in exhibiting greater sensitivity to the unique needs of migrant women construction workers, in order to reduce the burden of work and time poverty faced by these women.
Charter of Demands
Charter of Demands by Aajeevika Bureau and Bandhkaam Mazdoor Vikas Sangathan for the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC), Labour and Employment Department, Government of Gujarat, and Gujarat Building and other Construction Worker’s Welfare Board (BoCW), based on in-depth field study undertaken in Ahmedabad in 2017-18.
Identity and Recognition
Presently, women construction workers don’t enjoy the identity of an independent worker and thus lack access to their wages. This is because of the recruitment and payment system called “jodi-based wage labour” wherein the male worker negotiates the work arrangements and receives wages on behalf of the female worker. As stipulated in the BoCW Act of 1996, the Board shall ensure that employers maintain registers and records documenting the names, work performed and wages paid to all workers including women workers employed at the site, so that this invisible workforce is formally recognized as workers in the construction industry.
Women workers perform the most menial, laborious and mechanical tasks at the worksites, while also performing additional care work like cleaning and serving tea. In spite of this, in many cases, they are paid less than male workers, between Rs. 30 to Rs. 50, both at the labour nakas and construction sites. To deal with this injustice, the Labour Department shall enforce the Equal Remuneration Act of 1976, providing for equal remuneration for both men and women construction workers for equal work and for prevention of discrimination on the ground of sex against women in the matter of employment.
Housing and Basic Facilities
Most of the women construction workers live with their families in informal settlements under flyovers, on pavements and open public/private plots in different parts of the city. Through their hard labour, they have been significantly contributing to the growth and infrastructural development of Ahmedabad. Due to lack of basic facilities like safe drinking water and sanitation, women are forced to put in extra labour and time to manage their households. As they are legitimate citizens of the city, AMC shall ensure that these workers can access safe drinking water, sanitation and health facilities in the city, so that the labour burden of women workers can be reduced considerably.
Even after occupying these informal settlements for many years in different parts of the city, none of these settlements are recognized as notified or documented slums by the AMC. So it is necessary that AMC shall undertake an exercise to enumerate, officially recognize and document all informal settlements where women construction workers have settled in the city.
Workers have a legitimate claim to these informal settlements, which they have established through their significant contribution to the growth of the city. Respecting these claims, AMC shall not indulge in eviction drives and if at all eviction is carried out for developmental work, due procedures shall be followed and workers shall be provided with an adequate rehabilitation package.
At construction sites, workers are forced to live either inside the half constructed buildings or in sub-optimal make shift arrangements, which don’t qualify to be called as Labour Colonies. These conditions are extremely challenging for women workers, as they have to bear the brunt for the absence of sanitation and drinking water facilities. As stipulated in the BoCW Act of 1996, the board shall ensure that employers provide temporary, free of cost accommodation to all workers employed at the site, with separate and adequate cooking, bathing, washing and lavatory facilities.
As women construction workers use firewood as the means for cooking, they are forced to spend greater amount of time on cooking and thus it increases their labour burden. To reduce their work intensity, Gujarat Building and other Construction Workers Welfare Board shall provide cooking gas facility with a cylinder of 5 kgs in the name of women construction workers.
Workplace Safety and Social Security
Majority of the construction sites lack the basic parameters of safety like display of safety instructions, systematic safety inductions and use of safety gear. This creates an unsafe work environment for all workers especially for women who perform the most laborious and risky tasks of lifting and carrying heavy stuff and children who roams around the site unattended by their parents. As stipulated in the BoCW Act of 1996, the board shall ensure that employers appoint a safety inspector with required qualifications, set up a safety committee with equal representation of workers and management, provide suitable and sufficient scaffolding, safety nets and prevent danger from overhead electric wires.
Due to immense economic pressure to earn, women workers are forced to work at construction sites even after 8 months into their pregnancy which leads to high possibility of adverse health effects on both pregnant mother and the child. To improve this scenario, the Gujarat Building and other Construction Workers Welfare Board shall provide maternity benefits to women construction workers as granted to formal sector employees since the introduction of the Maternity Benefit Amendment Act of 2017 (26 weeks of maternity leave).
As a result of multiple demands on the woman worker’s time, she has not been fully able to cater to the nutritional and emotional needs of the infants. To reduce their work burden, as stipulated by the BoCW Act of 1996, the board shall ensure that employers establish crèches in construction sites wherein more than 50 workers are employed for providing childcare facilities for children under the age of 6 years.
Women construction workers living in informal settlements and construction sites are completely outside the purview of National Urban Health Mission. It is important that ASHA Workers shall make regular visits and provide the much required reproductive health care support and vaccinations to women workers and nutritional care to children.
Construction sites are unsafe spaces for women workers as there is high incidence of sexual harassments and exploitation. To make them women-friendly spaces, the Labour Department shall ensure that employers setup an Internal Complaints Committee with civil powers of enquiry and conciliation at construction sites, which have more than 10 workers, as stipulated in the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act of 2013.
Women construction workers living in open spaces constantly face issues regarding their physical security. Even when they are ill, they can’t stay back in their settlements without men being around as these spaces are unsafe. This forces them to go for work despite suffering from major health issues. To make these spaces women-friendly, AMC shall set up Women Support Centres (WSC) in these informal settlements wherein women workers can come, sit, relax and seek medical counselling.
*Programme Manager, Aajeevika Bureau, Ahmedabad