Survey finds 94 per cent of construction workers ineligible for funds transfer

Published : April 08, 2020 12:41 IST

Migrant construction workers housed at a shelter near Chennai following the lockdown, on March 31. Photo: B. Velankanni Raj Photo: THE HINDU

The question of inadequate relief measures for migrant workers left stranded in more ways than one by the COVID-19 lockdown was brought out starkly in a survey done by the non-governmental organisation Jan Sahas.

While the Labour and Employment Ministry asked all Chief Ministers and Lieutenant-Governors to release funds directly into the accounts of construction workers using the cess collected by the Building and Other Construction Workers’ Welfare Boards, the Jan Sahas survey, conducted between March 27 and 29, found that 94 per cent of labourers did not have BOCW cards, making them ineligible for any transfer. Further, 14 per cent did not have ration cards and 17 per cent did not have bank accounts.

“If our dataset is representative of the 55 million labourers currently employed in the construction sector, then more than 51 million labourers will not have access to any benefits,” the NGO said. Its members conducted telephonic interviews with 3,196 migrant construction workers from north and central India and found that the status of unregistered labourers remained precarious.

As many as 51 per cent of those surveyed mentioned that they had loans and would find it difficult to repay them without employment. Jan Sahas suggested that one way to prevent indebtedness or debt bondages and consequent bonded/forced labour was to use the PM CARES Fund to grant income assistance to labourers taking into account the real loss in wages and the stipulated monthly minimum wages for at least three to six months. It is to be noted that the details of how the PM CARES Fund will be utilised has not been made public.

More than half the labourers surveyed earned between Rs.200 and Rs.400 a day to support a family of four. As many as 42 per cent of those contacted said they had no ration left for the day, let alone for the duration of the lockdown. Thirty-three per cent of the workers were still stuck in destination cities with little or no access to food, water and money. A staggering 90 per cent had lost their source of income in the three weeks since the lockdown.

Given the precarious condition of migrant workers and to mitigate their risk of indebtedness, the government should issue directives to waive off or reschedule loans from banks and Self Help Groups, the NGO suggested. The government should direct moneylenders, contractors and recruiters to not harass workers to repay debt and defer repayments for two-three months, it said. “Under both MGNREGA and BOCW laws there are provisions that allow the state to pay unemployment allowance. Increase allocations from the Center for States to activate these provisions in the law and announce these measures including detailed provisions,” said Jan Sahas.

The construction sector contributes to around 9 per cent of India’s GDP and employs the highest number of migrant workers. Each year, nine million workers move from rural areas to cities in search of work at construction sites and in factories.

Despite having one of the world’s strongest PR machineries, which broadcast the Prime Minister’s thali-banging and lamp-lighting events very successfully, information about welfare measures to assist the needy has failed to reach the workers. As high as 62 per cent of the respondents did not have any information about emergency welfare measures provided by the government and 37 per cent workers did not know how to access existing schemes. The absence of assurance of any state assistance added to the fear and confusion felt by a worker.

Owing to non-portability of ration cards, concrete efforts must be made to ensure that those stranded in destination States, who are holders of ration cards in their source States are provided a seamless delivery of ration. Those without ration cards should also receive free ration for the next three to six months, said Jan Sahas.

Not surprisingly, the majority of the migrants belonged to the Other Backward Classes (39.9 per cent), Scheduled Castes (23.1 per cent) and Scheduled Tribes (18.6 per cent). The mass reverse exodus proved that if unable to work, then there was nothing left for a migrant in a city and they had no social community to fall back on.

Commenting on the general status of migrants in a society, Jan Sahas concluded, “It is also symptomatic of the exclusion of the migrant population from all social safety mechanisms. It is further unacceptable that the welfare of migrants was not mentioned even once in any of the directives issued by State agencies until it became impossible to avoid the videos and pictures of large groups of migrants walking in deplorable conditions.”

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