A Window to the Construction Workers in IITK Amidst the Pandemic

Hamara Manch Report, July 2021

On 14th July 2021, women workers at the Swadeshi Civil Infrastructure Private limited construction site (the one across the airstrip) were told that they were all fired with immediate effect. Around 60-70 women were working at the site at the time and several more were to join in the next few days. Many of them have been working for months and were earlier told that they would continue to do so for at least several weeks more. Most of these women workers are migrant (at least not from the neighbourhood) and have come along with families to work at the construction site. It is imperative for all the adult members of the family to work, for them to be able to sustain the arrangement, as they have no social moorings here. Hence women losing jobs meant even the men would have to discontinue as they would not be able to survive in the meagre wages earned by men alone. When they tried to ask the reason for such abrupt en masse dismissal the women were told that these were orders from above. Most of these women were yet to be paid for the months of June and July, and when they asked to be given their dues they were told that their payments would be made soon but no definite date was given. Without employment these women and their families would be forced to leave and since they may not be able to pursue for their wages they were likely to lose it too. Usually, we at Hamara Manch have no access to construction workers because given the peculiar arrangement of construction work, those workers have no interaction with the regular workforce of the campus. And therefore, Hamara Manch has not reported anything on this construction activity during our pandemic series even though work has been going on full swing. But in this instance, we had a unique window to this site and the workers because three women mess workers had joined there recently.

As we had mentioned in our last report on women mess workers, (https://nirvaakiitk.wordpress.com/2021/06/29/15-months-of-pandemic-and-women-mess-workers-of-iit-kanpur/), situation is extremely desperate for several of them and they have been on the lookout for any kind of paying job. And when they came to know that there were some work for cleaning and clearing debris in newly constructed building by Swadeshi Contractor, several of them went to seek employment and three of them were recruited.

Construction Work in the Institute during Pandemic

The entire Institute has been practically shut down for most of the last 15 months. The hostels have been vacated, all public spaces barricaded, sports and other facilities have been shut down, even academic area has been inaccessible for most of the time. Students and RAs have been sent home, most workers, especially those serving the students and hostels, have not got employment except for a few days. Only so-called essential workers have found regular employment like– security, sanitation, horticulture and maintenance workers. But one activity continued with almost undiminished fervour all through this period except for the few initial months – and that is construction work. All across the campus trees are being cut, open grounds dug up, old structures are getting demolished and new massive buildings are coming up. Most of these activities happen behind large metallic barricade, and only when the built structure start peeping up from these large barricades does one realise that they have come up. Among the gigantic cranes, JCBs and earth movers also work hundreds of workers for whom the entire concern for pandemic seems to have been kept aside. Usually, campus residents do not have any access, let alone interactions with these workers. They are herded into the site on trolleys every morning and then herded back to where they are put up outside the campus when the work is done. The trolley uses the back gate of the campus beyond Hall 11, presumably to avoid even a visual encounter. And the work often goes on well into the night as is evident from the light and sounds from the construction sites as one passes by. But as the buildings tower over the restricting barricades, we can see young men and women without any form of safety gear or equipment hanging from the buildings as they work. This of course portends of a disaster waiting to happen, and we have seen many over the years. Still such primitive practices go on as a norm.

The Work

The three mess workers who found employment at the Swadeshi site were offered wages at Rs 333/- per day; they were told they would get Rs 10,000/- for 30 days of work. The work was quite strenuous – they were supposed to report by 8.45, start work by 9am and go on till 5.30 pm. Besides these three mess workers there were at least 60-70 other women workers who, as we mentioned earlier, were not local. Some of them were from Bihar, some from MP, several from Lakhimpur Kheri, Hamirpur, etc. Also, none of them were paid the same wages – those from Bihar were paid Rs 230/- and three meals of rice and sabzi, usually potato; others were paid Rs 300/- per day with no extra. Most of them have come with their families – which means that they had some male members. Several of them have been working for months on the site and have done every kind of manual work there. Our mess workers noted that these non-local women were made to work even harder and longer – ploughing, shovelling, carrying heavy loads, everything. Though there were a few elderly women, most of these women were very young from teenagers to in their twenties and several of them had very young children, infants and toddlers. All these children also spent the entire day at the worksite among the elements. Apparently, these women take turns in minding the babies one at a time, while the rest work. Most of these workers have been brought by some petty contractor and the payments were made through them. In fact there were several layers of petty and sub contractors between the main ‘company’ and the actual workers.

And then on the 14th July all of them were told that there was no work for them from that day. There was no prior notice given, and all their requests, to be allowed to continue and the effect such abrupt dismissal would have on their families, were ignored. They were not even given a valid reason for such a drastic step.

Still the workers went back on the 15th asking to be allowed to continue work or being paid their entire wages so that they could leave. But the contractor’s men refused to let them work and told them falsely that their wages were already paid to their petty contractor. That evening they asked Hamara Manch to come over to their living quarters to narrate their predicament. This is quite telling that even though thousands of workers work in the Institute there is no place/space for them to assemble, talk, rest, or discuss. In fact they are barred from all public spaces.

The Accommodation of these Workers

The company claims it provides accommodation for its workers either within the site or in a labour camp. In this case this constitutes of an empty plot of land with some metal sheet cover and several containers (the same that are used to ship and transport goods across the globe) lined up. Each container houses 20 people and though we did not get a chance to see them from inside we were told that they have berths akin to a train compartment, thus people are stacked up one above the other. Due to this arrangement the small plot of land is able to accommodate 200 people including women, toddlers, infants and men. Needless to say they are packed as sardines. There are a few toilets outside the plot. Each container has a small opening in lieu of a door, and some holes cut out as windows. There is a water tank in the middle of the plot which is filled by ground water pumped up by a motor. This water is used for everything – drinking, ablution, and cooking. Everyone is expected to bathe in the open. Food is cooked in the same premises. There is electric connection and it is provided free by the contractor. As we entered, we found men women and children lying around on the unpaved floor after having finished work for the day. There was no fan anywhere in sight nor any other cooling device. This is where these people come back to after having put in backbreaking labour in the heat for up to 9-10 long hours. All the workers seemed very young, in their twenties and thirties, there were some who seem to be in their teens even, both girls and boys. Of the people we met only one woman worker seemed to be much older, in her sixties but she too has been putting the full day of work.

Further Details about Work and Firing

What we could gather from talking with the workers was this that this particular building’s construction got over in February 2021, and the cleaning and clearing work (which needs to be done before the finishing work) started around mid-February. Initially there were only two women along with their families who were doing this work. But as the second lockdown got enforced many of the workers left for their native places. And this is the time when the work was at its peak and any interruption would have further delayed the subsequent work. Therefore, the contractor requested the petty contractors to get workers from anywhere possible and he would pay up to as much as Rs 400/450 daily wages if required. That is the reason so many women workers were employed in this work. Some of the workers had never done construction work before– a whole group of people (including the old woman mentioned earlier) are from the snake charmer tribe and this was their first job of this kind. In fact, they are nomadic and usually move from place to place. But given the grim employment situation all over, they too have not been able to make their living through their traditional occupation.

Both men and women were promised Rs 400 per day as wages. But the main contractor gave the petty contractor only Rs 350/- per person. Further the petty contractors’ dues were never cleared on time. Apparently, the petty contractor kept paying at the rate of Rs 400 for a few days because he had promised to do so, shelling out the balance from his pocket. But when the workers learnt of his predicament, they agreed to accept Rs 300/-.

As the lockdown eased the supply of labour also increased, including those who were ready to work for even lower wages. As we mentioned earlier, workers from Bihar were working at Rs 230/- per day plus food. And it was generally believed that this was the main reason for them being thrown out of their employment. They think that the company would now hire their entire labour requirement at this lower rate. At the moment the women workers from Bihar too have been asked to leave in keeping with the company’s professed stance that women workers will not be allowed on their site. But these workers think that Bihari workers would be called back when they left. And should the women leave, the men would not be able to continue hence they too would be forced to leave.

Almost all the workers have due wages left – some up to 45 days’ worth. As one of them rightly said for the contractor ‘jitni rangadari se hamen ek second me baahar nikaal diya utni rangdari se payment bhi kar dete to hum chale jaate’ (You did not take a second to throw us out, if you had made payments also with the same aplomb we would have left by now). The company has assured them that the payment would be done soon, but as the workers argue, how are they supposed to survive without any money or job in this place? And they know that should they leave, they would not be able to come back and pursue for their dues and would effectively forfeit their wages.

The elderly woman told us that she has been forced to do manual labour because of her young grandchildren. Her daughter-in-law passed away a few years back, her son seems to have a serious leg injury and has been admitted in the hospital for several  months now. She is not sure how she will manage after losing this job.

While we were talking, the contractor’s men kept harassing the workers asking them to keep quiet. One of them started taking a video, he was asked to desist from recording. Then a higher up was called. This person was extremely rude –at first he threatened the workers. Then when we intervened he asked us (HM) ‘what business did we have with the workers’ and further ‘unwanted outsiders were not allowed, and he needs to ensure the security of this camp’. We got a reverse dose of what our workers regularly face from the security of this campus. We tried to reason that this was beyond work hours hence they were within their rights to invite whomever they wished. But he was adamant that this was ‘illegal’.

We left soon after.

An Ordinary Death

The next day morning (16th of July, 2021) we came to know that a young woman worker in the camp HM visited had died in the night. She was from Bihar and one of those who had been working @ Rs 230 plus food.  By the time HM volunteers reached the place there were a whole slew of company/contractor’s men hurrying up the disposal of the body.

No one was ready to talk, the family was also silenced. From what we could gather she had been ill for a few days and the family was requesting for medical attention from the contractor. She had even gone to the site on Sunday (11th July, 2021) but was turned back. Her family including two brothers, an uncle, aunt and a nephew are all working here. They had been here for a month now. But since the family had taken some loan from the petty contractor back in the village, their first month’s salary was to go towards payment of the loan. They had no money and though this woman could not work, the other members could not even miss work as they would lose wages. Feeling very unwell she limped to a medical shop around 500 metres from their camp site hoping to get some medicine. The shop-owner could see she was very unwell but did not know how to help. She sat outside the shop not having the energy to go back. Only in the evening a jhola chap doctor came and examined her and said she needed to be hospitalised immediately. Some family members also turned up after work but having no money and not knowing anyone from around they called up the contractor yet again for help. One of the contractor’s man turned up and decided that things were not so serious and just putting her on glucose drip would suffice. They came back to the camp late in the night. She passed away at 3 in the morning.

In death she looked serene and seemed barely out of her teens. The family had wrapped her in a blanket and she was shoved into a private ambulance which was apparently supposed to take her back to her native village in Bihar. But this was an ordinary ambulance with no arrangement for transporting dead body over such a long distance in this heat. Her brothers were also bundled in with her.

And soon the ‘normal’ activities of the camp resumed.

In conclusion

We have tried to describe the ‘ordinary’ life and death of the workers who have been constructing all the fancy building in the Institute. The boards hung outside the site tells us that each of them is worth hundreds of crores of rupees. And yet, the young men and women with their children who make these buildings do not even get minimum wages. Most of the construction do not follow even basic safety norms – helmets, footwear, harness, etc. The workers work for longer hours than stipulated under extremely stressful conditions and are fired arbitrarily often losing their due wages. Their living quarters barely protect them from elements, crowded, unsanitary and do not  provide even basic amenities. There is no provision for their health care and we suspect that there would be several cases of  serious illness and death even, which go unreported. Since HM was around we know that the young woman who died so unnecessarily was named Pramila. But most workers live, work and die unacknowledged in this Institute.

We might say it does not concern us.

But It Does.

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