By Satya Vyas
All eyes are on Qatar as the 2022 FIFA World Cup is underway. Upwards of a million sports fans are expected to descend on the emirate over November and December, but there’s no ignoring that the soccer extravaganza is underlined by tragedy.
Since 2010, when Qatar was picked as the host nation for the 2022 World Cup, over 6,500 migrant workers from Asia have lost their lives—more than half of them to unknown causes, natural causes, and cardiovascular disease.
But migrant workers have a hard time everywhere. In the United Arab Emirates (UAE) alone, five Indian migrant workers died each day between 2017 and 2021. More recently, a massive fire in Male, the capital of Maldives, caused the deaths of 10 foreign workers, among them nine Indians. The fire broke out in a garage below their cramped residential quarters, which had only a single window for ventilation.
How construction workers fare at home
The situation is not much easier here in India. When a new construction project is underway, resident workers are set up in shelters at the construction site—usually a cramped room and a makeshift outhouse; sometimes not even that. Yet, it’s common for out-station workers to move to the project site with their wives and small children.
While the women may help move bricks and other materials, young children miss out on school. Most construction projects have no creche facilities where children can be placed while the parents are at work.
Temporary accommodation on construction sites could be better. Poor access to water and sanitation facilities ups the risk of contracting water-borne diseases. Labourers and their families develop respiratory issues from constantly inhaling paint fumes, cement particles, and construction dust. Malnourishment is a serious risk among the children who live on site.
If someone falls ill, access to healthcare poses a challenge, especially for outstation workers. Some construction firms arrange for doctors and medical care, but this is not the norm. Low wages complicate things further because labourers cannot afford the medical care they need.
Of course, poor earnings are a long-standing issue. At the mandis where labourers pick up daily or weekly work, employers haggle over daily wage rates. It’s a standard feature of these worker mandis but also exploitative.
Besides earning a pittance, working long hours, and having no real job security, construction workers are also constantly working amid unsafe conditions. An accident at work could leave them disabled or dead. Yet, developers and builders continue to cut corners when it comes to site safety and workers’ welfare.
Who is looking out for Indian construction workers?
In the absence of stringent regulations, not much improvement can be expected. There is a law targeting the issues of construction workers—The Building and Other Construction Workers Act, 1996. The act mandates that every state must have a welfare board to compensate construction workers and their families in the event of disability or death. Also on offer are healthcare benefits, home loans, and pensions.
Now, here’s the loophole: The welfare boards provide benefits only to registered workers. When there is no legal requirement for employers to register their construction personnel, the vast majority of workers remain outside the purview of these welfare boards.
On the bright side, there are efforts to improve working conditions for workers on construction sites. In Delhi, for example, the state government organises mobile daycare centres and doctor visits for construction workers. In Maharashtra and Karnataka, construction firms work with NGOs to provide creche facilities for the children of labourers.
Kerala has set up institutional systems to support its non-residents who work in the Gulf nations. The state government provides them with personal accident and critical care insurance. It also collaborates with community organizations and governmental bodies in the Gulf nations in emergencies.
All these are steps towards improving conditions for construction workers in India and beyond, but a lot more needs to be done.
What the road ahead should look like
Ensuring site safety, humane working conditions, and basic healthcare for construction workers and their families is only the bare minimum. Also needed are temporary schools and daycare services for their children.
Any workers who are migrating abroad should receive pre-departure training to know their rights and how to cope if an employer defaults on their contract. Adding social ethics to the graduate and post-graduate curricula for architects and designers would help as well.
India is expected to become the third-largest construction market in the world this year and real estate is likely to hit a market size of USD 1 trillion by 2030. So, it makes sense to build policies that support workers right from the ground level.
(The author is founder & CEO, Project Hero. Views are personal.)