Hard-earned Rights of Construction Workers Are Threatened

Bharat Dogra

A large number of construction workers and senior activists associated with their rights and welfare are agitated that their rights secured in the form of two important laws enacted in 1996 may be badly threatened now.

In 1996, after a long delay, two important legislations were passed by the Parliament for construction workers the Building and Construction Workers (Regulation of Employment and conditions of Service) Act, 1996 and The Building and Other Construction Workers Welfare Cess Act, 1996. This legislation came only after a 12 years long sustained campaign by the National Campaign Committee for Construction Labour (NCC-CL) in which various central trade unions campaigned unitedly. Among other things, this legislation provides for a cess to be collected on all new construction activity at the rate of one percent of the total budget of the construction being taken up. This amount has to be deposited with the construction workers' welfare board for many-sided welfare activities of construction workers including pension, assistance in case of accident, housing loan, insurance scheme, maternity benefits, education of children etc.

This legislation applies to every building or other construction work which employs ten or more workers. It covers all Central and State government establishments. It also covers all private residential buildings if the cost of construction is more than Rs one million.

Although the implementation of these laws suffered from several problems, in more recent times directions from the High Court and Supreme Court had revived hopes of much improved implementation in the days to come. In fact, despite overall inadequate implementation, at least a good foundation has been established during the last 2 decades or so as 36 state boards have been set up, funds amounting to Rs 30,000 crores have been collected for the welfare of workers, and several workers have started receiving pensions and other benefits.

However, all those good works and hope for even better things to come are now threatened. According to a recent statement of the NCC-CL dated June 29, 2019—
"We the ten crore construction workers of the country oppose the four Labour Codes which will repeal the Building and Other Construction Workers Acts (BOCW) of 1996. These Acts are the outcome of three decades of campaigning under the Chairmanship of Justice V R Krishna Iyer.

"The repealing of the BOCW Acts will lead to the closure of all the 36 state BOCW Boards, cancellation of about four crore registrations of construction workers as beneficiaries, cancellation of the lakhs of pensions (and other benefits) which are being paid to older workers and disabled workers in different States and cancellation of lakhs of freeships being paid as education assistance to the children of construction workers besides cancellation of several other benefits including maternity benefits.

"The construction workers demand implementation of the Supreme Court Judgment of 2018 on the NCC-CL petition and withdrawal of the proposed four Labour Codes."

Further this statement explains why the alternative system proposed by the government is not practical and construction workers are likely to be served better by the prevailing system. As the statement says—
"Construction workers do not need the kind of social security fund proposed in the Codes. We are already entitled to social security from our Welfare Boards that are adequately funded by a Cess on the building industry and our own registration fees. We get work for barely fifteen days in a month and earn roughly a quarter of the monthly minimum wage. We see no reason why we should be asked to pay between 12.5% to 20% of our monthly wages into social security fund.

The system of collecting a minimal Cess of 1%-2% of total construction cost from a construction establishment, as per the BOCW Cess Act, 1996 is the best method for funding our social security.

The proposed diversion of the thirty thousand crore Rupees Cess amount and a much larger amount of interest earned on this Cess is absolutely illegal".

One hopes that better serve will prevail and, in all cases, where better social security has been provided by existing laws this will not be disturbed by the new Labour Codes.

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Vol. 52, No. 3, Jul 21 - 27, 2019