By Nisha Bharti, Consultant, Aajeevika Bureau, Mumbai
When I went to Ahmedabad to visit a construction site and observe women’s working and living conditions there, I knew from the literature that construction sites do not provide basic facilities to their workers. While men answer nature’s call in open, women wake up early in the morning to get their basic needs met. Basic health and safety just doesn’t exist at these sites.
Women’s living conditions: the ever-present risk of death or injury
(Seeta’s room – one of many informal settlements in the construction site)
There are two types of housing structures for construction workers at the construction site. Some of the workers are provided accommodation in semi-constructed buildings and some are staying in labour colonies, made up of tin and ply boards.
The average size of rooms under both types of housing structures is 10×10 feet. To reach the rooms in semi-structured buildings, workers and their children have to climb on the stairs, without any railings, and cross a heap of sand. If left alone, children could meet with an accident at any time. A two BHK semi-structured flat is shared by two different families. The kitchen and toilet of the flat is not functional – so the cooking is done inside the room, and a common toilet is constructed in the field- a few meters away from the building.
(Seeta at work)
Seeta, 16 years old, stays in the labour colony with her 3 year old brother Ajay. Their mother died 1.5 years ago after a snake bit her. Since then Seeta has looked after her brother. She came to this construction site with her relatives four months ago, while her father and three younger brothers remained in village. Seeta stays in a 7×7 foot room in the labour colony. She cooks on earthen stove by using waste woods from the construction site. In her room there is not enough space to move.
When I visited Seeta at 5:30 in the evening, she lit the kerosene stove and put water in a pan. She stood to take sugar and tea powder kept on the rack above the stove. While she was standing her stole hung over the stove, perilously close the fire. That was certainly a scary moment. I told her to take precaution while using the stove.
Though workers are provided with accommodation at the construction site, the site is hardly suitable for any human being. There are no toilets, basic drinking water, lighting or cooking facilities. How is it that a construction company that can sell their property for millions of crores cannot provide these basic essentials for its workers?
Women’s working conditions: dangerous paths
Seeta, along with another woman, carries stone pebbles and sand to the crushing and mixing machines. There is a boy in their group as well. His task is to fill the gamela (small tub in which stone pebbles and sand is carried) and load that on the women’s head. The machine and the place from where she carries the stone pebbles and sand is not very far from each other, but the path these women cover is highly dangerous. As they start walking with the 35 kilogram load, there is a water pipe and a platform made of cement bags. The women wear a pair of flimsy slippers, which at any point might get stuck in the water pipe or in the threads of the platform made by using cement bags.
The path another group of women walk is equally hazardous: carrying over 35 kilograms, they walk over an iron-made platform, where women’s slippers can easily get stuck in the gaps. The construction site supervisor should urgently provide these women with boots and other safety measures.
(A gamela which women carry on their heads, weighing 35 kg)
Women’s wages: a source of mystery
Most of the women at the construction site do not know what they earn from their daily toil. When I asked about her wage, Seeta said that her cousin knows what she makes. She also said that contractors pay every worker Rs. 500 per week for daily expenses, and the rest of the amount is paid by the end of the month. But she did not have any idea whether she gets the correct amount for her work.
These field notes are part of Aajeevika Bureau’s ongoing study on migrant women’s work, which will be published in full later in 2018.