Overcoming labour issues in India’s Construction sector

Rajesh AR writes about infrastructure development contributing to increase in demand for construction workers while pointing to the fact that the industry’s problem today is not availability of manpower but the availability of quality labour.

Rajesh AR

Rajesh AR

Infrastructure industry is booming in India
A new study by Global Construction perspective and Oxford Economics has predicted India will stand as the world’s 3rd largest construction market by 2025. The country will have to gear up to add 11.5 million homes a year to become a US$ 1 Trillion a year market by then. A significant number of international real estate players have entered India as they see good investment opportunities emerging. More significantly, the Indian government has allowed 100% FDI in realty projects through the automatic route. Accounting for 11% of India’s GDP the construction industry employs over 32 million people and the urgent need for country’s infrastructure development is contributing to increase in demand for construction workers. But the industry’s problem today is not availability of manpower, but the availability of quality labour.

Concerns dampening the spirits of construction workers
Despite the prospects witnessed, the construction sector is mired in problems. It suffers from capacity constraints, lack of finance, mechanization, trained manpower at the workers’ level and performance at managerial levels are way below international standards. The recruitment of construction workers is through a long chain of middlemen (contractors and subcontractors) or roadside recruitment (street corners/Nakas ), where workers wait every morning to be picked by contractors and many of these small and medium level contractors have no capacity to upgrade. More than often, workers in the construction sector, the second biggest after agriculture, are generally treated as second-class citizens with no means to protect their dignity.

Construction alone accounts for nearly 65% of the total investment in infrastructure. The segments in the Construction industry cover, residential, public, commercial and industrial buildings, highways, bridges, tunnels, roads, sewers, etc. Besides the general, lower construction skills, other specialized skill sets such as carpentry, plumbing, electrical work and painting are very much essential for the industry. Over 94% of India’s labour force that includes construction workers is employed in the unorganized sector, exposed to exploitation, job and wage insecurity with no legal protection. To further add to their woes, there is no appropriate addressing of quality, skills, education, employability for higher wages, safety, environment and social aspects of these workers. In addition, the long term market instability and uncertainty has negatively impacted the opportunities and prevented expansion, training and development facilities.

Most of them are not registered with the Labour Commission and therefore do not have any legal entitlement, with no provisions like social security and benefits in terms of labour welfare, pension and insurance schemes, financial aids or loans for childrens’ education and medical needs or even accident and death claims.

Can the Construction workers be Skilled for better productivity?
Ironically, the construction workers come under the unorganized sector, despite medium and large-scale projects that need legal procedures – call for tenders from government and existence of legal contracts that comes under the organized sector. In contrast, when it comes to construction workers, violation of basic norms and labour laws are committed on a daily basis and hardly any measures to protect these workers are taken.

The crisis of poor skilled output can only be uprooted when the skill set is intelligently and efficiently improved from grass root levels. It’s anticipated that our skill shortage in construction is in tune of 33%.
The one who is involved in construction i.e. civil engineer , carpenter ,draughtsman or labor, has shortage of skill set due to poor training and an education system that struggles to create job ready talent.

We need to actively focus on the following to promote efficiency of our construction sites:

-Advice the government on policy formulation
-Training manpower in order to produce skilled workers at various levels in the industry.
-Workers welfare
-Promote new technologies by interacting with international organizations.

In addition to this a number of Industry leading players are investing heavily into skill development of their workforce. They are setting up training institutions and working with number of skill development agencies to train their workforce on the ground.

The ‘Learn while you Earn’ or Hybrid Learning Solution is an initiative that aims to address the intersecting space between Education, Employment and Employability. It adopts the approach of providing learning opportunities to the workers to enable them to become more skillful and consequently more employable to command higher wages due to productivity increase. Social enterprises play a key role in skilling these informal sector workers. They set up the training centers at the construction worksites and ensure workers learn the basic employability skills. These enterprises also ensure productivity at the work site is increased by reduction in material wastages or turnaround time. Further, they play a key role in protecting such workers in a holistic manner by committing themselves to improving workers’ welfare, working conditions, skills and social security, despite being present in the informal/unorganized sector

It is also imperative for government bodies and authorities to frequently intervene and ensure effective implementation of labour laws along with organizations working in this sector and constantly inspect the living/working conditions of such workers. State Labour Department should form a tripartite committee to consider issues and problems of construction workers.

India despite putting itself on the global map in terms of GDP growth needs a stronger grass roots level push if we need to pull our majority of informal sector out of poverty and raise the quality of life of the working and migrant masses. Classroom education is not the only answer to it as our economic and social situation is not very conducive for the majority to pursue it beyond a certain age. We need programs that are taken up by construction sites irrespective of their size that can blend the twin needs of education and employment such as ‘Earn and learn’ for the people to have a fighting chance of breaking out of poverty.

(The author is Executive Director, LabourNet Services India Pvt. Ltd.)

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