Local tradeswoman’s trip to India strengthens her resolve to fight for workers’ rights

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LACK OF SAFETY REGULATIONS: There is a lack of consistent safety regulations protecting workers in India’s construction industry. In the left photo, a barefoot worker is digging a trench to place a fiber optic cable. In the center photo, a woman wearing a sari and sandals lifts heavy cobblestones from the street. Notice there are no barriers cordoning off the project, nor is there any supervision. In the right photo, a worker wearing boots and a hardhat – a rarity seen in the country – mixes concrete which is put into small buckets and pulleyed up to another worker to reinforce a girder. – Beth Barton photos

MoWIT president Beth Barton was one of 15 to participate in the first U.S. Tradeswomen Delegation to India

By SHERI GASSAWAY
Correspondent

India is going through one of the largest construction booms and GDP growth in the world. Everywhere you look, there are numerous construction projects going on.

In the United States and other countries, a robust economy with a bustling construction industry would translate to good-paying, steady jobs in the trades. But that’s not the case in India.

There, construction workers work seven days a week from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. with only a day or two off a month. Men are paid between 600 and 800 rupees ($9 to $12) a day and women earn one-half to one-third of a man’s pay for the same work.

Many report to work barefoot or in sandals and have no protective gear. Families are often hired in units with children as young as 10 joining in the work. Their younger children are left to wander the jobsite while they work.

Those are just some of the shocking revelations Missouri Women in Trades (MoWIT) President Beth Barton witnessed while she was in the country as part of the first U.S. Tradeswomen Delegation to India in January.

Barton recently shared her journey to India during a presentation co-sponsored by the St. Louis chapters of the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC) and AACE International, which serves the total cost management community.

WORKERS HAVE NO PROTECTIONS

“The trip strengthened my resolve to fight for workers’ rights, based on the atrocities I saw at those construction sites,” Barton said. “The workers have no protections. In some cases, contractors tell their workers they are holding their pay for a month so they don’t spend it on alcohol. But with no records and everything paid in cash, some of those workers don’t ever get paid, so it’s essentially slavery.”

Barton, a Tarlton superintendent and Carpenters Local 1596 member, was one of 14 U.S. women and one man in the construction industry selected to participate in the 17-day trip led by Fulbright recipient Susan Moir, Ph.D., director of research for the Labor Resource Center at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

AN INTERNATIONAL TRADESWOMEN NETWORK

The group met with Indian government officials, union leaders, organizers and construction workers in Dehli, Mumbai and Chennai. The goal was to build relationships that set the stage for an international network by and for tradeswomen and to improve the lives of women construction workers around the globe.

The trip helped Barton build upon the work she has been doing over the last decade as president of MoWIT. The non-profit group works to support and mentor women in the St. Louis-area building trades and to promote the construction industry as a career choice for girls and young women.

INFORMAL PROJECTS, which make up 90 percent of India’s construction industry, often include family units that work together. In the left photo, a grandmother watches over one of the family’s children playing on a rebar bag. In the center photo, the wife is seen doing some of the most low-paying dirty work. In the right photo, the family’s other child runs around his father while he works. – Beth Barton photos

WHY INDIA?

Barton said India was chosen for the delegation because of its critical mass. It has the highest concentration of female construction workers in the world, she said. In the United States, women make up about three percent of the construction workforce compared to about 40 percent in India.

“Women workers are almost entirely unrecognized as valuable workers in India,” Barton said. “The husbands are considered to be the skilled workers and the wives are considered ‘helpers,’ sometimes doing the dirtiest, low-paying work.”

CHALLENGES FACING THE INDUSTRY

Barton said to fully comprehend what’s going on in India’s construction workforce, one must consider the challenges that industry faces and the intricacies of the country, some of which include:

• Formal vs. informal projects. Formal construction projects are regulated and provide a tax which funds benefits for “registered workers.” However, many workers are illiterate and migrant so they do not register. Women are not allowed to work on these projects. Formal projects are comparable to government projects here.

Informal projects are not regulated and are similar to private projects in the United States. About 90 percent of all construction projects in India are informal, and these are the only projects women are allowed to work on. Wages are negotiated between the workers and employer.

• Lack of basic living necessities. There is a consistent lack of food, shelter, clean water, clean air and sewage treatment.

FORMAL PROJECTS, which comprise about 10 percent of India’s construction industry, are regulated and provide a tax which funds benefits for “registered workers.” Women are not allowed to work on these projects. Barefoot workers in this photo are laying floor at a boathouse, a highly used tourist attraction which was still open to the public during the project. – Beth Barton photo

• Lack of consistent safety regulations in the construction industry. Workers are frequently seen wearing no shoes, hardhats, gloves or safety harnesses. Children roam the dangerous jobsites, which are bereft of barriers, meaning anyone can walk through a project at any time.

• Large migrant workforce. The large population and the lack of food and work have led to a large migrant workforce that follows projects, barely earning enough to survive. The migrants, who often work without any benefit for half the normal pay rate, displace the local workforce, which already works for low wages.

• Failure of unions. Unions, where they exist, fail to back each other up consistently and do not organize the migrant workforce.

• Workers separate based on caste or class. While caste equality is the law, it’s often ignored.

• Construction in India has recently been disrupted. The recent removal of the 500 and 1,000 rupee bills has disrupted as much as 50 percent of the building projects since construction there relies heavily on cash payments.

A DAY IN THE LIFE of Indian workers includes a morning visit to the naka, a large, popular gathering site where workers show up at 6 a.m. hoping to be hired by contractors who come along in trucks and buses. Contractors award the work to the lowest bidders. – Beth Barton photo

A TYPICAL DAY FOR AN INDIAN WORKER

While in Dehli, Barton and her group visited what’s called a naka. It’s a large, popular gathering site where workers show up at 6 a.m. hoping to be hired by contractors who come along in trucks and buses.

There were hundreds of men and dozens of women, mostly hiding in the back, Barton said. The contractors would call out the skills they needed for the day.

“They negotiated right in front of us,” Barton said. “Someone would say I’ll do the work for 600 rupees, and the contractor would call out ‘Who will do it for 500 rupees?’ I felt like it was 1890, and it was the Industrial Revolution. It was so shocking.”

SHARING PRACTICES

In addition to touring various sites in India and meeting with workers, the group also participated in the Building Bridges 2017 International Tradeswomen Conference held at the V.V. Giri Labour Institute, where national and local labor leaders discussed challenges and opportunities in the United States and India.

During the conference, Barton gave a presentation on her work with MoWIT. “I showed them photos of women in the trades here and some of the work we are doing to promote the industry as an opportunity for girls and young women, and they were just stunned,” she said.

‘WE ARE BETTER TOGETHER’

Barton said the delegation’s goals are to maintain and continue to build relationships with labor leaders in the country and to begin planning for another conference in India within two to five years.

“It all follows the basic organizing principle that we are better together,” she said.

Barton added that some of her Indian counterparts have been invited to take part in the 2017 Women Build Nations Conference in Chicago in October. She is hoping the women will be able to spend a couple days in St. Louis before attending conference.

Barton said MoWIT is searching for individuals and groups to host the women while they are in St. Louis. If you are interested in helping, call MoWIT at 636-926-6948.

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