In a buyer's market

Published : Dec 02, 2005 00:00 IST

In Delhi's chowks, poverty and migration bind labourers into informal networks to find work and cover their basic needs. Government efforts to formalise these have foundered.

IT is 8 a.m. and Bara Tuti is buzzing; groups of softly whispering men are huddled in tight knots, smoking beedis and drinking hot tea. In their midst, Mohammed Ashraf holds up my ignorance for all to see. "If you had studied psychology, you would know! If you don't wash your feet before you sleep, you get bad dreams. I sleep unwashed, on the pavement every day. Imagine the dreams I get." Ashraf, a house-painter, has been nominated by his co-workers to explain the inner workings of a labour mandi, or market, to the unknowing outsider. "Its like this," he begins.

The labour mandi is a last resort for the unemployed. Usually situated in densely populated pockets of Delhi, it is unmarked and unmapped by city planners, and unseen by those who do not come with the express purpose of looking for it; no placards announce its existence, no road signs give directions. Rickshaw-pullers, tea shops owners and cigarette-sellers wave their hands and paint elaborate maps in the air - the third alley past the sweet shop, up the incline, right past the police thana.

The mandi is a collection of tea shops, indistinguishable from other tea shops in other parts of the city, except for the large numbers of men sitting in easily identifiable groups. The largest groups consist of an old man who sits slightly apart from a gaggle of smiling youngsters and scowling 40-somethings. This is the head mason, or maistry, with his team of lesser maistries, beldaars and mazdoors. Close to these large groups sit several smaller satellite groups of painters in paint-smattered pyjamas, carpenters with large toolboxes and the odd electrician or plumber. Workers gather by eight o' clock in the morning, and builders and contractors arrive by 9 a.m. Brief but frantic negotiations ensue, and the labour workers pile into trucks and are carted off to construction sites across the city. Contractors usually negotiate with the maistries to outline their needs for the day, and the maistries organise the necessary labour. The work could be for a day or a week, and in rare cases for even a month, and the wages are fixed accordingly.

"The going rate for an ordinary labourer, or mazdoor, is Rs.100 a day and Rs.150-200 for a maistry," says Mukhraj, a head maistry, "Carpenters and painters demand higher wages of up to Rs.300 a day, depending on the amount of work." However, workers are rarely in a position to enforce wages, as the plentiful supply of cheap labour drives down their market value. "Invariably most of us end up working for about Rs.80 a day," explains Kallu, a labourer, "and the maistries get about Rs.150." Apart from his daily wage, which he gets from the contractor, the maistry also charges his own workers Rs.5 a day as commission for getting them work with the contractor. Thus, the job of the maistry is much sought after. For their part, maistries are quick to point out that their work is not for everyone. "You have to be smart," quips Mukhraj rather defensively, "otherwise you could try for years to be a maistry and still fail."

The job of the maistry is perhaps the most crucial task in the building process. He is responsible for making the masala - the complex glue of cement, mortar, sand and water that holds the building together. If the masala is prepared wrongly, the building, or wall, could crack at best or collapse at worst. "It's not easy," explains Abdul Latif, a seasoned maistry with 20 years of experience, "you have to consider a hundred different factors, the day and night temperature, humidity, size of the building and so on". Apart from making the masala, he also acts as a structural engineer or an architect when required. To become a maistry, a labourer must apprentice as a beldaar (the worker who actually mixes the masala) for a few years, after which, if he is `smart' he can go on to become a maistry.

What is clear is that in the daily wage market, like any other employment market, specialisation, the ability to convert your dehadi (work) into karigari (craft), is the only way to retain some degree of control over your wages.

Maistry, carpenter, painter or common labourer, the one thing that binds these groups together is the shared experience of poverty and migrancy. Two hundred rupees a day implies Rs. 6,000 a month, but the calculation is misleading because most workers are not paid that much, and they do not find work every day. The average worker at a chowk in Delhi finds work for between 15 and 20 days a month. Such minimal wages make it difficult for labourers to save any significant amount of money, and so a worker could struggle for years on end, only to sleep hungry on the day he is too old, sick or exhausted to work. According to the Report of the Second Labour Commission in 2002, "wages are by and large at minimum or sub-minimum levels."

Low wages only compound the many problems faced by unorganised construction labour. The strenuous and taxing nature of the work and the lack of safety apparatus mean that accidents and injuries are routine, and often life-threatening. The absence of any long-term relationship between the employer and the employed, a defining feature of the unorganised sector, allows the contractor to escape liabilities and compensation payments with ease. "There is no contract saying that I work for a particular contractor," says Ram Singh, a labourer. "Most contractors simply say that the injured person was a passer-by who strayed into the construction area."

Finally, construction is a highly seasonal occupation, and while the festive season of Diwali and Id-ul-Fitr bring enough work for all, construction slows down towards the beginning of the year and comes to a standstill during the monsoon season. During the lean season, most workers have no choice but to leave Delhi for their native villages in eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. This migratory nature of their work is at the root of the way in which labour mandis come into existence and operate.

The mandi is not just a physical space; it is also a social network. Most workers cannot afford permanent accommodation and so sleep on pavements adjoining the chowk, or pay Rs. 6 a night for a bed at a nearby night shelter run by the municipal corporation. To compensate for the lack of security, local tea shops and cigarette shops function as banks, moneylenders and safety lockers, all rolled into one. Most workers leave their tools at these shops for the night for safekeeping, and pass on any extra money to these informal agents. The agents keep the money, and invest it, often using the money to offer loans to labourers in need. "As long as you give them adequate notice, they always return the principal amount," says Mohammed Ashraf. Perhaps for `security reasons', labourers were reluctant to name any local moneylender or banker.

Labourers at Jama Masjid Chowk have organised themselves into a union. The Delhi Raj Tatha Carpenter and Mazdoor Union was set up in 1989 with Mohammed Rafi as its first president. The union collects a membership fee of 50 paise a month from its 300-odd members and in return provides them with earmarked pavement spaces to sleep and sturdy wooden boxes to keep their tools and money, and protects them from the police and municipal departments. They also pursue compensation claims for injured members and try and provide some compensation from their rather meagre corpus. "We used to have a plastic roofing as well, but then the Municipal Corporation of Delhi took it away when they demolished the fish market," says Mohammed Yaseen Quereshi, the treasurer of the union. Under Quereshi's stewardship, the union has affiliated itself with the All-India Trade Union Congress (AITUC). The members claim that daily wages tend to be higher at Jama Masjid as workers refrain from offering their services for less than the standard wages of Rs.100 a day for a mazdoor and Rs.200 a day for a maistry. However, some privately concede that there is no way of enforcing a minimum wage as the chowk is a public space, and anyone can offer their services for as much as they like.

It is important to note that only daily-wage workers utilise the labour mandi. A significant number of labourers contract themselves out to thekdedars or jamadars who liaise between workers and contractors on a commission basis. Often contractors employ a core group of workers on a regular basis and hire out extra labour when required. However, there are no hard and fast boundaries. A worker at a mandi may join a contractor for an extended period, and similarly, a contract worker may leave a contractor for the labour market if he can.

Time and time again, existing narratives, of the state and the media, question why, "after more than 50 years of Independence, the condition of the worker has remained the same." An answer to such queries might be found in the basic assumption of such narratives, that the state is the prime mover in society. In interviews with Frontline, construction workers repeatedly questioned this assumption. Workers often view themselves very differently from the way the state views them. The absence of fixed spaces of work and residences, seen as a `problem' by state narratives, is often seen as "liberating" by workers. "I earn about the same as a factory worker," says Pervez, a carpenter at Jama Masjid Chowk, "but I come and go as I please. I work when I want to, I go home when I feel like it."


The `abject' condition of the construction worker is seen as a symptom of their existence outside of the purview of the state. Thus, all emancipation projects first attempt to lock workers into the logic of the state via tools like registration, police verification and membership of organisations like unions, and then attempt empowering discourses. One such piece of legislation is the Building and other Construction Workers Act, enacted by the Union government in 1996.

The Act provides for the constitution of a welfare board for all workers engaged in the construction sector. Via the Building and Other Construction Workers Welfare Cess Act, 1996, the board is entitled to raise a 1 per cent cess on all construction work in a State and use the money for worker welfare. To avail themselves of the benefits provided by the Board, workers, in 18-60 age group, are required to register with the Board and pay a nominal membership fee at regular intervals. In return, the worker is entitled to maternity leave, a monthly pension on retirement, accident compensation, loans, and death benefits for his or her family.

However, more than three years later, not a single worker has registered. The corpus stands at a measly Rs.3 crores. In an interview with Frontline, Delhi Labour Commissioner Narender Kumar stated that implementation had been held up for a variety of reasons: notification of the cess collecting authorities, site inspectors and assessors was contested by the builders' lobby in 2002, the software meant for worker registration required modification for Devnagari script and registration required some form of identification such as birth certificates or ration cards which few, if any, workers possessed. Registration is expected to start by the end of October; workers are required to get affidavits authenticated by a designated authority.

Many, such as Subhash Bhatnagar, Coordinator for the National Campaign Committee for Unorganised Sector Workers, see this legislation as the important first step in securing the future of India's 260 million unorganised workers. Kallu, a mazdoor from Saharanpur, pulls on his beedi and sums up why the project will not work. "The sarkar (government) don't understand us. All sarkari projects are conceived with the single aim of making someone very rich. That someone is never us."

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