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Speech by Construction Workers’ Federation of India

13 September 2007

“The working women in contemporary conditions

and the position of the class oriented

trade union movement”

 

13th & 14th September, 2007 - Brussels

 

Dear Comrades,

I convey my fraternal greetings to the WFTU and all the delegates to this International Conference on Working Women on behalf of the Construction Workers’ Federation of India (CWFI). The CWFI has got membership of about seven lakhs construction workers. I thank the WFTU for giving me an opportunity to address this important conference. The initiatives taken by the WFTU in bringing together the women representatives from all over the world to discuss on the issues concerning the workingwomen is highly appreciable.

The globalisation and liberalisation policies meted out by the imperialist forces grievously affected all the workers in the third world/developing countries including India. The life style of the workers is thrown out of gears due to extensive contractualisation of jobs. The workers in construction industry in India are worst affected.

 

The Construction Industry accounts for about 40% of the development investment of India during the last 50 years. It contributes 5.1% to GDP (Gross Domestic Product) and 78% to Gross Capital Formation. About 16% of India’s Working Population depends on Construction Industry for their livelihood.

According to an estimate of the ‘National Building Organisation’, every one million rupees spent on Construction generates 3000 man-days of skilled and semi-skilled employment and 1300 man-days of managerial/technical employment. Employment generation in the housing sector is the highest.

In-spite of its large size, this industry comes under ‘informal sector’ of the economy due to its structure.

Under broader categorisation, the Industry comprises

- Over 200 firms, called the corporate sector.

- 90,000 firms classified as class ‘A’ contractors registered with various Government Construction Client bodies. These firms may be of the medium or large size in terms of volume of business turnover.

- There are about 0.6 million small firms of contractors/sub-contractors who compete for small-jobs; or work as sub-contractor of principal employers/contractors.

- There are countless unregistered tiny contractors and labour suppliers.

Women Construction Workers constitute 25% of the Construction Workforce in India. Out of 32.6 million of construction workers about 8.2 million are women. Of these only 0.12 million are engineers, architects, designers and administrators.

Most of the others are engaged in manual unskilled jobs. These women are not getting any required training for their skill up-gradation.

The ILO through its Conventions Nos. 100, 111, 142, 3, 103, 156, 168 and 158 formulated the following seven basic rights of women:

The Right to Equal Pay, the Right to Equal Treatment, the Right to Equal Training and Career Opportunities, the Right to Maternity Protection, the Right to Combine Work and Domestic Responsibilities, the Right to Paid Work and the Right to Safe & Healthy Work Environment free from sexual harassment.

 

The Indian Constitution also under Articles 23, 24, 39 and 45 covers the rights of women and children.

But the Cultural Inherit is otherwise:

Construction is the worst model of patriarchal culture. The contractors, the gang leader, the mistry (foreman) all believe in male domination. Not only the contractors, but also the engineers, chief engineers would do their worst to make sure that a competent woman in the organisation is pulled down and made to quit.

Women’s employment choices are limited.

The most common reservations against hiring women workers/executives in construction industry are that

– It is a strenuous manual job and work has to be done under open sky hence it is very difficult for the women to work at work sites. Project Managers say that they cannot ask women to work in the hot sun, upon scaffolding the whole daylong.

– There is also a general feeling that it would be very difficult to maintain discipline on a work site with men and women working side by side.

– Other reasons mentioned by contractors are that recruiting women engineers and workers would mean extra expenditure for separate toilets and other facilities.

Overcoming all these odds women get jobs in this industry. And to retain this (temporary) job she has to subjugate herself to all sorts of harassments/humiliations in the work-spot.

According to some research findings in our country

- About 80% of female workers, at the age of 10-12 years start working in the construction industry

- 92% of women workers in this industry are illiterate.

- Almost 90% women workers are in temporary jobs. Women workers are being retrenched very often for demanding equal wage, leave and some other benefits.

- Women construction workers are denied equal remuneration and are not even paid the minimum wage.

- Women have to work 10-12 hours in a day. There are no specific rest intervals for them.

- There is no such provision of paid holidays for daily paid workers though they work continuously for considerable period of time. No work no pay system is in practice.

Wherever the trade union movement is active and strong these problems could be addressed to some extent.

There are many factors, which prohibit women workers to get training. Some of the major ones are :

- Availability of relevant programmes,

- Timing and location of training,

- Completing the demands of children and families,

- Lack of pre-requisite formal education,

- Resistance, or even opposition, of men to women receiving training.

Turn around:

– There is a clear gender based division of labour in construction work.

– Men do all the skilled operations.

– In unskilled work, while men helpers dig earth, mix the mortar, carry cement bags; women carry head-load, bricks and other construction materials.

If we want to turn around this picture, the union, the management and the government have to work together for developing skill base, technology and capacity through planned training scheme. This step will create high confidence level within the women construction workers and to move ahead.

In CWFI’s view, to change the negative attitudes of the employers,

– Make women partners in decision-making.

– Appoint them in key positions.

– Give them responsibilities of resource management and control.

– Appoint women officers to manage departments that handle work of women workers.

– Do not dilute authority, responsibility or accountability of women once they are put in responsible positions.

– Building centers and similar grass root level training agencies may appoint women organisers who could network with local communities in the catchments area and educate families to encourage girls to go for training.

– Publicise the fact that vocational and technical education is offered free of charge and substantial services are given to girl trainees (as in some States such are Kerala, Goa and Kashmir).

– Contractors and Building-materials-manufacturing-Enterprises could be approached, given incentives and administrative directives to give jobs to trained and skilled women.

The CWFI readily comes forward to accommodate women in its decision-making bodies from local level to the national level.

Before coming over to this International Conference, the CWFI had organised an All India (Construction) Working Women’s Convention on August 25th and 26 at Ranchi in the State of Jharkhand. This is the first occasion that the CWFI has taken initiatives to form such a Sub-Committee of Women Workers at national level to plan and develop ‘working-women movement’ in the construction industry.

Our programme :

– Within next 3 years CWFI will try to setup women workers sub-committees at least in 7 – 8 more states in addition to those States where women sub-committees already exist.

– 25 to 30% of workers in construction sector are women. But in our union’s membership women constitute about 10 to 15% only. Women are hesitant to join in unions. Therefore, enrolment drive needs to be conducted.

Construction workingwomen have special demands unlike any other section of working women.

- Construction women are able to work only up-to a maximum of 50 years of their age. So pension at the age of 50 years for women is a special demand.

- Enhanced financial assistance of Rs. 6000/- through the State’s welfare schemes as maternity benefit, and Rs. 3000/- for miscarriage or abortion.

- In almost all the States, men workers get wages more than or at-least the Government prescribed minimum wages. But women workers generally get wages less than the minimum wages. [Of course, everybody gets wages far below the need-based minimum wages, determined at 1957 Indian Labour Conference.] Therefore, equal wage for equal work must be given.

- Many construction women are widows or deserted by their husbands. They are unable to meet the health and educational expenses of their children. This needs to be immediately addressed by the Government.

- Many face sexual exploitation/humiliations/ harassment at work spots. Therefore, the complaints committees on the directives of Supreme Court of India must by ensured by the Government.

- Adequate representation for women in welfare boards.

- Adequate maternity benefits.

- Strictly implement Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service Act, 1996 in all the states.

Sorting out and compiling all these demands a programme of action, culminating in a day’s strike, has been decided by the Convention.

In conclusion,

My dear Comrades,

As indicated in the invitation letter to this Conference:

Unemployment, poverty, exploitation, physical violence, human trafficking, part-time work, black labour, unpaid jobs, etc. are some of the phenomena affecting the life of today’s workingwomen’. And yes, the trade union movement, whatever are its ideological biases, is not standing neutral on these issues. We do, representing CWFI, believe that the WFTU International Conference of Working Women will contribute positively.

The “Construction Workers’ Federation of India” would extend all its support and cooperation to the decisions of WFTU.

With warm greetings,

Malathy Chittibabu

Vice-President,

Construction Workers’ Federation of India.

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