The woman got on to the bus, gave the conductor a two rupee coin and prepared to get off two stops later. I caught her eye and said, sternly, "Pay proper charges and get a ticket, or you’ll be fined Rs 150." "All right amma, sorry" she said, alighting at the new flyover, "I work here, sweeping the rubble, and earn Rs 2,000 a month, I have to live on that."
The budget for the flyover is several crores. Workers like her who build it, earn for a whole month’s work, what an entry level software employee in our IT city, fresh out of college, earns in a single day.
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Imagine for a moment that all those providing essential services for the urban middle class — cleaning (domestic as well as city sweepers and garbage removers) , making deliveries, drivers, laundry workers, ayahs (in hospitals, clinics, and nursing homes) coolies and odd job workers , stopped work for a day or two, en mass. Could we survive? For how long ?
The maid servant takes a day off without warning, and we grumble (even if her reasons are genuine, like a sick child at home, or her own ill health) We who drive on the flyovers in our cars or two wheelers, seldom spare a thought for the men and women who slog lifting head-loads of stones and bricks and muck in rain and sun.
What triggered these thoughts was a national tribunal with live testimonies, held at Bengaluru in the last week of November. Garment factory workers from around the country spoke about their work conditions and the exploitation they suffer. The comments apply equally to millions of workers in the unorganised sector (who form 94 per cent of the work force in our country) covering all petty labour providers.
Garment workers spoke at the tribunal describing how they had to work at a relentless pace, including compulsory overtime, because of the pressure from the importing countries to fill large orders at short notice. Women, who make up the majority of such workers, are supposed to have creche facilities, but told me, during a visit to one such factory in Bangalore, that the factory owner sets up a creche a day, a day before the visit of an inspector, and dismantles it afterwards. The jeans that these women stitch and iron and pack for export, are sold in France for fancy prices but the earnings of these women who slog sometimes 14 hours a day to meet quotas (or they lose their jobs) are insufficient to feed their families.
I found, during a visit to Tiruppur, the garment exports capital of India, that supervisors monitor the minutes spent by the women in visits to the toilet (they are allowed 120 seconds, twice a day). Anganwadi workers went on strike last month, protesting against pitiable work conditions and delays in salary payments. Many employees are hired as temporary contract workers, so that the employer can avoid paying for health and provident fund contributions mandated by law. They have no job security, no perks, not even statutory days off, even on medical grounds. Housemaids likewise, get no days off and enjoy no job security even after serving for a decade.
On paper we have many laws but employers can always circumvent them, because the poor have no clout or bargaining power — if one garment worker protests against exploitative work conditions or inadequate pay (or late and erratic payments, plus arbitrary deductions) she can be thrown out and another recruited in her place. Unionisation is prevented or penalised, to keep them vulnerable. (This too, is against the law.)
The road worker gangs that erect our fancy flyovers, are likewise, at the mercy of contractors. Does the government that allocates hundreds of crores for such infrastructure projects, ever include provision for even minimal housing or shelters for the workers? Those building high-rise blocks sleep in shacks, their infants lie on sand heaps under the sun while the mother works carrying bricks up a scaffolding.
The security guard in a campus enclave earns Rs 4,000 a month (on paper) under a contract with the agency but gets only Rs 2,200 on hand, after ‘deductions’ on one count or another. If he questions the deductions, he loses his job. He cannot even afford a proper shelter unless four of them share a small , 10 by 10 ft rented room that serves as living, cooking and sleeping accommodation.
Supposing they all rose up in protest and stopped working? "No problem" says an affluent builder who drives around in a new imported air-conditioned car reportedly costing Rs 35 lakhs, "I can bring in workers from Bihar or Odisha." Poverty, then, ensures that there are always more indigent labourers ready to work even for unfair wages, the moment one group quits. And who are the employers that take advantage of such inequities? We — or our neighbours or friends, right ?
The tribunal has drawn up suggestions for such workers based on the international jury’s recommendations, but nothing will change unless the government machinery decides to factor in social equity to translate the provisions of our Constitution into reality. And that can happen only if our elected representatives push for it. And they in turn, will only attend to it if we, who elect them, urge them to. With elections approaching, all we have is promises. Social equity seems nowhere on the agenda. Without the millions of poor workers, neither the government nor the citizenry can survive, and yet they are not taken into account in policy decisions — because only the voices of the affluent get heard.