Building India's cities, silent workforce of women goes unrecognized

NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When newly-wed Kamlesh was told she would be accompanying her husband to work in the city, she was thrilled at the prospect of a better life than in the drought-prone village in central India where she grew up.

Women labourers work at the construction site of a road in Kolkata January 8, 2015. REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri

But arriving in New Delhi 12 years ago, crammed into the back of a truck with her husband and dozens of others, Kamlesh was shown a make-shift tent home on a pavement and realized that city life would not be what she had expected.

“We were put to work immediately. The contractors told us to clear all the dirt and soil around the construction site and carry the cement to the masons,” said Kamlesh, 30, wearing a black, white and orange sari, squatting as she broke into a drain with a hammer on a Delhi roadside.

“I didn’t realize how low the pay would be, how we would be living and that I wouldn’t see my children much. The men always complain that we women are weak and don’t work fast enough, but that’s not true. We work just as hard.”

Across towns and cities in India, it is not uncommon to see women like Kamlesh cleaning building sites, carrying bricks and or shoveling gravel - helping construct the infrastructure necessary for the country’s economic and social development.

They help build roads, railway tracks, airports, and offices. They lay pipes for clean water supplies, cables for telecommunications, and dig the drains for sewage systems.

But although women make up at least 20 percent of India’s 40 million construction workers, they are less recognized than male workers with lower pay and often prone to safety hazards and sexual harassment.

They are often unaware of their rights or scared to complain, say activists now trying to campaign for better treatment of women in the construction industry.


“There are two types of construction workers - those living in the cities, and those who are migrants. It is the migrants who have a harder time,” said Martha Chen of the global network Women in Informal Employment: Globalising and Organising.

“They have no community, except the other workers. Their living conditions are much worse. They have no water supplies and toilets, and nowhere to leave the children when they work.”

The workers are recruited from villages by contractors who employ them for public and private projects. The contractors are responsible for accommodation, transport to and from the site, and decide their pay and working conditions.

Women laborers also say they are often paid less than men.

Female workers in Delhi said they earned 250 rupees ($4) a day compared to 450 rupees paid to men for the same work as it is generally accepted in the industry that women be paid less.

Most women come with their husbands, and often with their infant children who are seen playing amongst the piles of bricks and gravel as their parents labor under the blazing summer sun.

Two or three times a year, the workers go back to their villages to see children they left behind with grandparents and pay off debts mounted over the years.

Researchers say women complain of the toll the labor-intensive work takes on their bodies, the lack of child care and abuse by their contractors, or agents.

“On construction sites, there is a lot of harassment of women workers by the agents. They are making passes at them, lewd comments and may try to touch them or even physically molest them,” said Priya Deshingkar of the Migrating out of Poverty Research Consortium, a program run from Britain’s Sussex University.

“Women are in a highly vulnerable situation because they are constantly harassed by the agents but they can’t tell their men about it because they feel that they will be ex-communicated or punished by their husbands for behaving in a way that attracts this attention,” she added.


Another challenge faced by women as well as men is the lack of financial compensation when they get sick, say activists.

“Women in the construction industry in India do the lift-and-carry work. They climb the scaffoldings with the bricks and soil on their heads. The hazards they face are often much higher than men,” said Chen.

“Their body is their only asset. Safety and health is a big issue. If they are sick or injured and can’t work, they lose money. There are no benefits as they work in many different places, for different employers and are paid on a daily basis.”

Industry officials admit the discrimination in wages and recognition of skills of female workers, but say attitudes are beginning to change among the country’s bigger companies.

“The bias toward not recognizing the skills of the women is rather strong,” said Sunil Mahajan, additional director general of the Construction Industry Development Council, a government-industry body.

“But there is a certain amount of awakening among contractors. Companies themselves now recognize the need for social care. Basic minimum facilities such as crèches are increasingly being provided on sites and women are being afforded a lot more respect.”

Organizations such as the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) - India’s oldest and largest female trade union with over 1.3 million members - say most female laborers are unaware of their rights.

SEWA has formed a cooperative of female laborers in the western city of Ahmedabad, where they are given on-the-job training to develop skills ranging from cleaning, carrying and shoveling to masonry, carpentry and plumbing.

The cooperative also has an insurance scheme for workers, in which they are given half their daily wage for any sick days.

But cooperative organizers say it is not easy for them to get contracts due to the bias against women in construction.

“Clients don’t think that women can do this job with the same quality and speed and we face many challenges in trying to convince them that women are capable of constructing a house or a road, or doing water-proofing or electrical or plumbing work,” said Manali Shah, SEWA’s head of urban work.

“They say that women can’t do this work so it is very difficult to penetrate into this male-dominated work. But slowly we are making progress.”