Migration Narratives: The SHRAM Blog

Construction industry is a health hazard

Construction industry is labor intensive in India, because labor is cheap and available in abundance. The industry is one of the biggest employers (third largest) in India, with seven percent contribution to GDP. According to the Planning Commission’s XI-Plan document, employment in the construction sector in India has witnessed a steady increase from 14.6 million in 1995 to nearly 31.5 million in 2005. The figure stands at 45 million today, majority of which consists of migrants.
Shah and Mehta (2009) classify three types of migrant construction workers on the basis of their level of skill. The first is skilled construction workers such as bricklayers, masons, reinforced concrete workers, tile and roof layers, plasterers, supervisors, foremen, carpenters, plumbers, blacksmiths and electricians. The second category is semi-skilled workers like white washers, pipe layers and construction workers not elsewhere classified. The third is unskilled workers consisting of loader and un-loaders.The proportion of skilled personnel has gone down (15.3 per cent in 1995 to 10.5 per cent in 2005) while the relative proportion of unskilled labourers has registered a significant increase (73 per cent to 82.4 per cent).

Expanding and fast growing construction sector and, in general, lack of greater employment opportunity elsewhere has drawn large number of workers in this sector. Construction labourers are labourers who are migrated from different regions and states leaving their native villages in search of daily job. They have maximum mobility because of the nature of their work. In the recent past the trend shows that all big cities of country have become the centres to recruit casual labourers as construction labourers to cities and urban areas. Extending EPFO benefits to construction and contractual workers as planned by the Labour ministry necessitates focus on the larger issue on security of construction workers given the nature of their work and the apathy of the employers and the hiring contractors alike.
It is a definite positive step as proposed by the ministry in bringing the informal sector workers under Provident Fund cover. However, there are realities which need urgent attention and action oriented approach, not just planning. Occupational health in this sector has lied in neglect, and there is a strong need for research oriented policy reform. Construction and mining are the most hazardous sectors in terms of health-related risks. Construction workers face a greater risk of developing certain health disorders and sickness than workers in many other industries. The construction sites create breeding grounds for various vectors and unprotected laborers act as potential baits. Take the example of Maharashtra, which has a share of 10.75 percent of construction workers out of a total 3.7 million migrant workers. Mumbai (suburban) alone has 1.2 million migrant workers, out of which 9.12 percent are construction workers. Considering the fact that majority of the migrant workers are in the informal sector and thus outside the purview of administration, these numbers represent a miniscule share of a more humongous group. Nonetheless, these figures point out the extent of the labour-force employed in this fast expanding sector and the associated cruelties. Construction workers are exposed to multiple physical, chemical and biological agents, which make them vulnerable to various health problems that include – injuries, respiratory problems, musculo-skeletal disorders and gastro-intestinal diseases. The work is hard physical labor, often under difficult conditions like adverse weather conditions and the nature of work, hours of work, low pay, and poor living conditions with lack of basic amenities and separation from family, lack of job security and lack of access to occupational health services makes the situation worse. In addition, poor sanitation conditions make them vulnerable to contracting water-borne diseases. Respiratory problems are also a common feature with the workers employed at construction sites due dusty environment and cement particles in the air. The prevalence of water and vector borne diseases, respiratory, injury and high risk behaviors have a higher incidence among the unskilled and semi-skilled workers because of their lack of knowledge and basic literacy to understand the protection and precaution which needs to be undertaken while working. Although Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) have created spaces of engagement with beneficiaries (migrant workers), within which they provide service delivery, the mechanism is limited in its area of functioning. Catering to a few migrant worker sites, won’t solve the larger issue of deteriorating public health system. The importance and necessity of state initiated and regulated service (health) cannot be replaced or franchised to another entity. There is a definite need to change the code of conduct of the government (from negligence to diligence) on Social Overhead Expenditure (SOC) even as Civil Society tries to plug the holes of the existing system.

Aritra Chakrabarty

Aritra Chakrabarty

Anchor, SHRAM (Till Dec 31st, 2014)

As a social researcher, I believe in knowledge-based policy action. With a postgraduate degree in Development Studies, I've been associated with social issues in my professional space. As a part of SHRAMIC initiative, was involved with data creation, sourcing of resources that will become the knowledge bank of this project.
Aritra Chakrabarty

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