Indian tradeswomen advocates creating positive change for the country’s female construction workers

TRADESWOMEN ADVOCATES Thresiamma Mathew (second from left) and Vrishali Pispati (third from left) shared how they are changing the landscape for tradeswomen in India at an event here Oct. 11 sponsored by Missouri Women in Trades (MoWIT). Cindy Frank, coordinator of Sisters in the Brotherhood of the St. Louis-Kansas City Regional Carpenters Council (left) and Beth Barton, MoWIT president (right), hosted the women when they were in St. Louis. – Labor Tribune photo

India has the highest percentage of women in construction worldwide


Patience and perseverance. That’s how Thresiamma Mathew and Vrishali Pispati are overcoming adversity to create positive change in the lives of tradeswomen and their families in India.

The two Indian tradeswomen advocates shared their experiences in the industry with an audience of about 50 during an event hosted by Missouri Women in Trades Oct. 11 at Sheet Metal Workers Local 36 Union Hall.

In January, MoWIT President Beth Barton traveled to the country as part of the first U.S. Delegation of Tradeswomen to India to build an international network of support. The delegation chose India because it has the highest concentration of female construction workers in the world – about 40 percent.

The international journey continued in October with Matthew and Pispati visiting St. Louis to meet with union leaders and organizers and to tour union training centers and jobsites. Later in the week, the advocates traveled to Chicago for the Women Build Nations conference with tradeswomen from the St. Louis area.

Mathew is the founder and director of the Archana Women’s Centre in Kottayam, which offers training and courses for women in the building trades, and Pispati is chief executive officer of Mumbai Mobile Crèches, which offers a range of services to children living on construction sites without schools or clinics or safe places to play.


India is going through one of the largest construction booms and GDP growth in the world. About 90 percent of the country’s construction projects are considered “informal.” They are similar to private projects in the United States. They are not regulated by the government and wages are negotiated directly between the employer and the worker.

The workers on these projects often work 12 hours a day, seven days a week with only one or two days off a month and safety regulations are virtually non-existent. Workers are frequently seen at jobsites wearing no shoes, hardhats, gloves or safety harnesses and the jobsites are bereft of any barriers, meaning anyone can walk through a project at any time.

The country’s large population and the lack of basic living necessities and work have led to a large migrant workforce that follows projects. The migrant workers, who often work without any benefit and for half the normal pay rate, displace the local workforce, which already works for low wages.

Families are often hired in units with children as young as 10 joining in the work. Women often carry their babies on their backs while they work and their younger children wander the jobsite.

Within the family unit, the man is considered a skilled worker, and women are referred to as helpers. Women are only paid one-half to one-third of what men earn even though they do the same work.

INDIAN TRADESWOMEN learn masonry skills at the Archana Women’s Centre in Kottayam. – Archana Women’s Centre website photo


In 2004, Matthew founded the Archana Women’s Centre in Kottayam, which offers skills training for women in masonry, carpentry and other building trades. Matthew is not a tradeswoman herself, but felt she had to do something to help women in the construction industry after seeing the disparities.

“I felt so much hurt and pain in my heart for the plight of women in the construction industry,” Matthew said. “Women are permanently condemned to being only helpers on the jobsite simply because they are women. They are doing the same work as men, but their wages are much lower.”

The goal of the center is to dismantle the barriers of gender discrimination in the construction industry through training, empowerment and continued motivational support of female construction workers. The center has trained 2,500 women since opening.

Matthew said the center trains between 15 and 30 women each session. The sessions last 90 days for basic training and focus on industry-specific skills development as well as social and physical education. After spending six months in their chosen field, the women can take an additional session at the center to become a master in that industry.

“In the beginning, I had many sleepless nights,” Matthew said. “When I first talked about the center and its goal, people looked at me like I was from another planet. But the training has influenced the way society views women. Now people say, ‘If women can do masonry, they can do anything.”

AN INDIAN TEACHER at Mumbai Mobile Crèches shares her love of reading with students at a daycare located on an active construction jobsite in Mumbai. – Mumbai Mobile Crèches Facebook page photo


Another major issue in India’s construction industry is the presence of children of all ages at jobsites. In Mumbai, the country’s most densely populated city, there are 3,000 active construction projects. Many families throughout India migrate to the city because all the construction work.

“We have many construction workers living on the jobsites with their families, and the dangerous construction site is the only playground they know,” said Pispati, chief executive officer of Mumbai Mobile Crèches.

The organization works to identify construction sites that would benefit from an onsite daycare center, negotiate the development of the center with the contractor and staff the facility.

“Sometimes we are provided with a finished room or an unfinished room, and it’s not an easy feat,” Pispati said. “We try to get the builders to pay 15 percent for the project, but most contractors are not cooperative.”

When space is provided, the organization provides educational activities to the children based on age as well as nutritional meals and access to healthcare. About 60 percent of the children are under age 6. In the event, an onsite daycare cannot be negotiated a mobile “Care on Wheels” bus is provided.

When the construction project is complete, the daycare centers are raised to the ground and replaced with landscaping or other decorative features and the workers migrate to the next job site. Sixty-one percent of the children stay in the centers for four months or less.

Mumbai Mobile Crèches runs 20 to 30 daycare centers each year, helping about 4,500 children by promoting their safety, health and education. The non-profit organization has helped more than 100,000 children since 1972.

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