Building Discontent

Welfare boards have failed to protect India’s construction workers

Of the 53 million construction workers in India, nearly half are not registered with BOCW boards, and only a third received cash benefits during the lockdown. manjunath kiran / afp / getty images
31 July, 2020

On 24 March, the union labour ministry advised state governments and union-territory administrations to use unspent funds lying with their Building and Other Construction Workers’ Welfare Boards to provide financial assistance to construction workers amid the COVID-19 pandemic. According to a government press release, the BOCW boards cumulatively had about Rs 52,000 crore available. The funds had been collected under the BOCW Welfare Cess Act, 1996, under which employers must pay between one to two percent of construction costs to maintain boards created to implement safety, health and welfare schemes for construction workers.

A couple of days later, noting that some state governments had already earmarked a portion of their cess funds for routine welfare operations, a labour-ministry official clarified that the actual amount available with the boards for pandemic relief was Rs 31,000 crore. During a press conference on 8 April, Punya Salila Srivastava, a joint secretary in the home ministry, claimed that state governments had announced emergency cash assistance ranging from a thousand to six thousand rupees per worker, and that over 20 million registered workers had received cash payments.

The most recent Periodic Labour Force Survey states that there are 53 million construction workers in India. On 14 July, the government released advisory guidelines for its “mission-mode” project for construction workers, in which it admitted that only 34.8 million of them had been registered by the BOCW boards, and that only 25.7 million workers were considered “live,” having renewed their registration. “This actually means that only five in ten workers in the field are live-registered and eligible for benefits under the cess fund,” it added. It found that only 18 million workers—one in three—had received cash benefits. The boards had cumulatively spent less than five thousand crore rupees on COVID-19 relief.

The project proposes to simplify registration and renewal processes so that all construction workers are enrolled for benefits and are registered in a central database. Moreover, it seeks to make it compulsory for welfare boards to enrol registered workers for the government’s various pension and insurance schemes, including Ayushman Bharat, and to pay the premiums and subscription costs, as well as employee contributions, out of the cess fund. Noting that the BOCW boards have underutilised the cess amount raised by state governments, the guidelines suggest that they venture into initiatives such as “forming encouraging housing and co-operative society, transit accommodation, hostels, dispensaries, creche, payment of premiums for social security schemes, mobile dispensaries, subsidised canteens, library, skill centres, seva-kendras, Toll free helplines, training, counselling, de-addiction centres, transportation, accommodation facilities at important pilgrimage, tourist centres and excursions to the state-of-the-art construction sites, exposure visits, etc.”