Saturday, February 06, 2010

India: Commonwealth Games - Death but no glory for India's migrant construction workers

By Ranjit Devraj - IPS

Republished permission Inter Press Service (IPS )copyright Inter Press Service (IPS) and

Commonwealth Games: No Medals for Labourers

NEW DELHI, Feb 6, 2010 (IPS) - If medals are being given out for backbreaking labour on miserable wages and impossible working conditions, thousands of migrant workers, slaving to complete stadia and other facilities for the October Commonwealth Games in the Indian capital, will be the champions.

"This is another example of a large and invisible workforce, drawn from the rural hinterland being exploited to show progress and ramp up the claimed eight percent growth rate,’’ said Dunu Roy, a well-know urban planner and activist.

Roy, director of the non-governmental organisation Hazards Centre, thought the exploitation far worse than what was reported about the 2008 Beijing Olympics. "At least the Chinese had in place a welfare system. Here there is nothing, not even basic registration of workers, so that they are left to the mercy of contractors interested solely in maximising their profits.’’

On Wednesday, the Delhi High Court, acting on public interest litigation filed by the People’s Union of Democratic Rights (PUDR), a leading rights group, ordered the state government to register some 17,000-odd labourers known to be directly involved in construction at Games venues.

Justices A.P. Shah and Rajiv Sahai Endlaw ruled that registration must be followed by the workers being given insurance cover, minimum wages under the law, pay slips, medical facilities and amenities like clean drinking water, electricity and proper sanitation where they are being housed.

Two weeks ago, the justices had taken the municipal authorities to task for bulldozing shelters and slum hutments, where many of the labourers spent the cold winter nights as part of beautification work for the Games.

"We think you want to show the foreigners coming for the Commonwealth Games that there are no poor people in India,’’ the justices commented while ordering the restoration of the shelters.

The Games, held every four years, typically bring together 5,000 athletes from the 54 member countries of the Commonwealth, a vestige of the former British Empire. In 2006 the Games were held in Melbourne, Australia. In 2014 Glasgow, Scotland, will be the venue.

Although estimates on total costs vary, the Delhi state government has placed the figure "conservatively" at 16 billion dollars, assuming it includes such items as new power plants, transport infrastructure and water supply.

Attracted by employment prospects offered by such mega projects, millions of people have been streaming into the city from the impoverished rural hinterland only to be exploited by rapacious contractors who, according to Roy and other activists, have cosy relationships with the authorities.

Outside the giant steel ‘bird’s nest,’ mimicking the structure built for the main venue of the Beijing Olympics, is a scene that – as PUDR’s advocate, Colin Gonsalves, told the court – flagrantly violates the provisions of the Contract Labour Act.

Lakshmi, a woman worker from neighbouring Rajasthan state, took a pause from moving bricks piled on her head, to say that she gets paid about half the promised amount of 200 rupees (4.29 U.S. dollars) per day promised by the contractor’s agent. "My husband is paid slightly more, but we do not protest because there is no work in the fields back home,’’ said Lakshmi as she was shooed back to work by a minder.

In Delhi, the Minimum Wages Act stipulates that no labourer shall be paid less than 151 rupees (3.23 dollars) for eight hours of work.

Lakshmi’s two-year-old daughter stays with her at the work site, playing happily amid concrete mixers, compressors and cranes, since the contractors make no provision for anything like crèches.

After a hard day’s labour, Lakshmi returns ‘home’ to a one-room tin shack to cook a meal over a smoky, open fire with scraps of whatever combustible material she can gather.

Altogether the camps present a picture that is far removed from the ‘Green Games’ that the promoters bill the event to be. According to the official website the Games will "e the catalyst for the development of the city of Delhi and its environs" and describes the Athlete’s Village as a "showcase for sustainable living."

Wednesday’s ruling was the result of investigations carried out by the PUDR with support from unions affiliated to the Indian National Trade Union Congress and a South Asian federation, the Building and Woodworks International, to get the workers registered with the Welfare Board (as laid down in The Building and Other Construction Workers’ Act).

While the contractors physically resisted any interference in the way they operated, reports of accidental deaths and a strike by workers in December 2008 resulted in the PUDR being able to gain entry to work sites and conduct the surveys and assessments that they presented in court.

"Workers reported that 70 to 200 labourers have died at this site [main venue] due to work-related mishaps. Union representatives, however, said that there have been about 20 fatal accidents, a much lower number but nevertheless an alarming one," the PUDR said in its report.

"Many deaths are occurring but go unrecorded," Gonsalves told the court. On Mar. 9, 2009 the ‘Indian Express’ daily reported that workers at the main Games venue had been unpaid since December 2008 and that payments were erratic. At that time, Emaar-MGF, the main international contractor, and the Delhi Development Authority (DDA), the principal employer, sought to lay the blame on subcontractors.

As part of remedial measures, the high court has ordered the formation of a four-person committee that includes Arundhati Ghosh, former Indian permanent representative to the United Nations, to ensure proper registration of workers and protection of their rights. The committee has been told by the court to convene its first meeting on Feb. 8 and submit an independent report by Mar. 17.

Roy, however, was sceptical if any significant change would happen in spite of court activism. "The organisers are already racing against time to complete the work before the Games begin –and so perhaps we will see a few changes effected in a spotty manner."

According to Roy the main problem lay in the "nature of the construction industry with its multi-layered contracting system, which defies accountability, although the government cannot evade responsibility for the safety and welfare of its citizens."

Construction projects are assigned to the Central Public Works Department, the DDA, the New Delhi Municipal Corporation and the Municipal Corporation of Delhi. These bodies have, in turn, contracted multinational construction companies for physical execution.

Roy said what is clear is that the labour department has learned nothing from the experience of the 1982 New Delhi Asian Games, when the Supreme Court had to step in on behalf of migrant labour.

"If anything, matters have deteriorated since those days when there was better political and social responsibility than now," Roy commented.

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