Demonetisation woes: Bank accounts aren’t helping these construction workers yet

Kaveri (name changed), hails from a remote village in Raichur district. It has been two years since she shifted to Bengaluru and started working in a construction site. Her employer would pay her Rs 6,000 a month in two instalments. The money she earned added up to the family income and was used mostly to look after her three girl children, whom she sees as a ray of hope. She admitted all her girls to a private school back home with an intention to provide them good education.

But last two months have been considerably tough for Kaveri. She has not received her wages from the last week of October. Lack of money coerced her to compromise on several things – particularly her children’s education. She sounds desolate when she says she forced two of her girls to quit school last month as she was unable to pay their school fee.

Labourers at work in a construction site. Pic: Nalme Nachiyar

“My first daughter studies in 7th Std and second one was in 5th Std. I had put them to a private school hoping that they would study well and get good jobs. But things went beyond my hands when I stopped getting my wages. The school demanded me to pay their quarterly fee of Rs 4,000 (for the second quarter) failing which they said my children can not continue their studies there. Without wages, when I am struggling to make my both ends meet, I was left with no other option (she says there was no government school in the vicinity) but to make my children quit their school and bring them to Bengaluru,” she says.

She meekly asks if her children could be admitted to any other school. If not, she says she would put them into work. “May be that way I get some money to run my family,” she tells.

This is not just the story of Kaveri, but several other construction workers like her, who have not been paid their wages ever since demonetisation wave swept the country.

Construction workers unpaid for weeks

Take the case of Adarsh Palm Retreat. Over 200 construction and maintenance workers and supervisors at Adarsh Palm Retreat , a plush under construction residential project on Outer Ring Road, have not received their wages in last two months, thanks to demonetisation.

These workers, who are either employed through masons or through labour contractors say that earlier they used to be paid in cash twice a month, but they have stopped receiving their wages in last 10 weeks.

Then how do they manage their lives? To this, Varadappa (name changed), a construction labour says, they are paid Rs 500 a week to buy basic commodities for survival and since they all live in labour sheds, they need not pay house rent.

“We end up borrowing from known faces. In fact, a lot of workers have returned to their villages because they were not paid,” he says. On asked why he and several other workers continue to work despite having not received their wages, he says, if they quit the work, they are afraid that they would not get their pending wages.

“We have been assured that we will be paid soon and we are hopeful,” he says.

A supervisor working in the site confirmed that they have been told there will be further delay in making payments and they would get their wages only in March.

Even as the workers and supervisors are not paid their dues, a civil engineer who was in the construction site said that he had no issues in getting the monthly salary. So obviously in this case, it is clear that demonetisation has hit the unorganised sectors, while the lives of salaried remains stable.

Workers are busy fastening ropes to the poles in a construction site. Pic: Nalme Nachiyar

Cash-trouble for construction sector

T S Rajagopalan, Vice-president (Projects) at Adarsh Developers agrees that the working class has got very badly affected due to demonetisation. “They (construction workers) are not able to get the payment. Because of demonetisation, every payment has to be done digitally or through cheques. But construction workers are not having their bank accounts in place. Earlier payments used to be routed through labour contractors. The contractor was given the cheque and in turn he would pay the workers with cash. But now, both the builders and contractors cannot withdraw money or make transaction above certain limit. Hence the problem,” he says.

He adds that his company is encouraging everyone to open their bank accounts to transfer the amount.

In fact, the workers Citizen Matters spoke to, too said that the company has opened their bank accounts in one of the nationalised banks in Marathahalli. “Nearly 250 bank accounts including mine were opened recently,” Babu (name changed), a construction supervisor said. New bank accounts were opened even for those who already have their accounts in banks elsewhere.

Limitations of bank accounts

However, the bank account too comes with glitches. While ATM cards have been issued to the literate bank account holders, cards are not issued to those who put thumb impression. “I got a passbook recently, but there is no money in my account yet. And I haven’t got an ATM card because I do not know to sign,” Shanthamma (name changed), a construction worker said. Citizen Matters cross-checked this with the officials at a State Bank of India branch and verified that illiterates are indeed not given ATM cards.

The workers also wonder if these bank accounts will be of any help in the long run. “We live like nomads. Our work site and employers change each season. So will we be asked to open another bank account the next time when we shift the workplace?” asks Madesh (name changed).

Normally, when a new account needs to be opened for a migrant worker, banks ask the applicant to get a letter from the employer – from the builder in case of construction workers. A self-affidavit on the place of residence is also required. The other option for the builders is to transfer the amount to Jan Dhan account. However, the new know-your-customer (KYC) norms that mandate Aadhaar or other documents have only made the issues difficult for migrant labourers.

When asked about the wages not paid to the workers in Adarsh Palm Retreat, Adarsh Developers Vice-president T S Rajagopalan said he was not aware exactly what was happening in this particular case. “But, yes, demonetisation effect is felt by everyone because of withdrawal ceiling, lack of bank accounts etc, and it will stabilise in couple of months,” he predicts.

‘Bank payment may not help the workers’

Hemanth Kumar, Founder of a city-based NGO Aashankura that works closely with the construction workers says that the workers have been severely hit because of demonetisation. “A lot of them have lost their jobs and returned to their villages, and those who continue to work are not paid. As 80 per cent of the construction workers do not have bank accounts, they remain unpaid,” he says.

He is even apprehensive of the online wage transaction helping the labourers in any manner. That is because, he says, when majority of these workers do not know to read and write they can be easily conned in the process of digital transaction by the employers.

Also, “the unorganised sector largely relies on daily or weekly wages. They cannot really afford to visit the bank every week to withdraw their wages. If they do so, they will end up losing their day’s work,” Hemanth Kumar says.  

Nagaraj, an office-bearer at All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) too feels it’s the unorganised sector workers including those from construction industry who are majorly hit by demonetisation.

“In most of the construction sites the workers are not paid in last two months and the situation is likely to continue for next two months. It is touted that opening of bank accounts will help the unorganised sectors as employers will be obliged to pay minimum wage of Rs 14,000, PF and ESI. But I am doubtful if it will happen in letter and spirit,” he wonders.

He finds it dubious, as there were examples in the past where employers find an easy way out from complying with regulations. “Take the case of BBMP (Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike). It was mandated that the civic workers hired by contractors should be paid Rs 15,000 per month. But the contractors found out deceitful ways. They forced the workers to return half the money, failing which they threatened them of throwing them from work,” he adds.

He sees something similar would happen in the construction sector too in which case opening of bank accounts would not be of much help. Therefore, those working for the welfare of construction workers believe that simplifying the process of wage payment by fixing accountability on employers is the need of the hour.

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About Akshatha M 220 Articles
Akshatha M was a Staff Journalist at Citizen Matters. She tweets at @akshata1.