Saturday , 16 November 2019
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Raw deal for Goa’s construction workers

If you visit Panaji market on Sunday evenings the scene is chaotic viz. much more chaotic than what you’d expect a market to be.

Hordes of migrant workers are out to do their weekly shopping on the day and arriving with little babies and large carry bags they create commotion as they move along. Haggling with vendors and visiting each and every shop before buying the workers seem as disorganized in their shopping habits as their daily life. 

Most of the workers are employed in the construction sector of the real estate industry one of the biggest industry in the state after mining and tourism. At last count there were 416 ongoing real estate projects in the state and even if worker are less on building sites these days because of the monsoons it means that Goa provides livelihood to lakhs of construction workers. 

For most of the workers employed in the multi-crore real estate industry living in the state is better than fighting poverty at home. They lead haphazard and subsistence level life but prefer to come back here each time to the mushrooming real estate industry. 

Investigation reveals that, Goans although welcoming and hospitable to tourists are indifferent when it comes to looking after the interests of construction workforce. The state has the mandated Workers Welfare Fund created out of one per cent cess collected from builders. Till date, Rs 165.83 crore is accumulated in the fund (see table) but utilization is miserly. 

Just 55 workers have benefitted from the money collected in the Welfare Fund so far and received average assistance of Rs 3,043, according to information revealed during the state assembly session. Further payment each year is inconsistent going by the money paid per worker.

Accidents both fatal and non -fatal are common on construction sites and one suspects that majority of the non-fatal accidents go unreported. So why do construction workers get so little out of a fund created for their benefit? “Probably because they have no voice and because of the informal nature of their job,” is the observation made by socially concerned citizens. 

According to builder Dr Jagannath Prabhudesai, former president CREDAI- Goa, funds collected for workers welfare can best be utilized when it is channelized through schemes. “The problem is of less beneficiary members registered with the Goa Building and Other Construction Workers Welfare Board. In the early years when we started enrolling members we expected more than 40,000 workers to register but until recently the membership was only of few thousands,” he says.

Prabhudesai says that, contractors need to tapped to increase membership as labour is not in the hands of local builders. He also suggests setting up kiosks in the informal labour markets held in various pockets of the state.

In October 2018 the state labour department in a public function launched 17 schemes for building construction workers and other construction workers covering all the stages of life. The schemes provide benefits vide financial assistance for various reasons like marriages, healthcare, housing, pension, maternity and children’s education. Besides, assistance is also provided in case of accidents, disability and death. One of the scheme is of a housing loan facility where the government will pay interest up to Rs five lakh.

Simultaneously the labour department also stepped by workers registration by going on a membership drive. To some extent the drive succeeded because membership shot up in the last six months and is currently 8,572, of which 5,549 members are registered in north Goa and 2,923 members are in south Goa. The immediate target of the labour department is to increase membership to 10,000 workers. Simultaneously officials are also trying to step up disbursement on a scheme involving education expenses of workers children.  

Construction workers in the state lead a sorry life by living on site in shanties, cooking in the open, residing in makeshift rooms with no running water supply or toilets. The workers are from neighbouring states and sometimes from as far away as Orissa, West Bengal. Uneducated and poor construction workers are not even aware of any welfare scheme for their benefit. Workers are totally dependent on the contractor who pays their wages and is often their

spokesperson.

Although schemes exist for their welfare the overall impression is that, schemes will never reach the workers unless they struggle and pursue them continuously.

Laws for workers welfare

There are two central laws which provide the basic safety net and welfare measures for construction workers. They are the Building and other Construction Workers (Regulation of Employment and conditions of service) Act, 1996 and the BOCW Welfare Cess Act 1996 which lays down the framework for the creation of a welfare fund by levying a cess (one per cent). In Goa, the government in December 2004 constituted the Goa Building and other Construction Workers Welfare Board and a Workers Welfare Fund. The Board was reconstituted in July 2008.

CAG on Workers Welfare Funds

The Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) in its March 2015 report had drawn attention to money accumulated in the Workers Welfare Fund. CAG pointed out that, the “money is idling without serving the purpose for which it was intended.”  Further CAG also pulled up the state government for being inefficient in earning interest on the accumulated money through judicious investments. CAG pointed out that, the money was parked in a savings bank account whereas it could have easily been put in fixed deposits where the interest rate is higher. “Through inept investments the government lost Rs 1.13 crore in interest income,” the CAG reports said. 

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