Most of us have passed by a construction site and have found workers toiling without any protective equipment, like gloves, helmets, or work boots. The scene turns rather gruesome if you visit a demolition site. Workers can be seen razing those high walls with mere mallets.
These informal construction-sector workers are engaged from various chowks/intersections that serve as mini roadside labour markets in a city. Construction workers gather here to offer their services on a daily basis. Unsure of how the sun would set on them and their families, with money or no money in their pockets to meet their basic needs, finding work is an everyday struggle for most of them.
On March 27, the prime minister launched the 'Ehsaas' programme, with the objective to reduce inequality and form a ‘welfare state’ by creating social safety nets for the vulnerable and through employment generation using innovative methods. The programme includes 115 policy actions. Of these, one refers to construction workers in informal settings and bringing them under the cover of social protection. Already in April, the prime minister launched the Naya Pakistan Housing Scheme under which 135,000 residential units will be built during the initial phase. Of these, 25,000 apartments will be constructed in Islamabad while the remaining units will be built in Balochistan.
Why the focus on the construction sector? Construction is labour intensive and thus has the capacity to create a large number of jobs. It provides employment opportunities for the low skilled, landless poor and engages a large number of internal migrant workers. According to a recent report, Pakistan has a housing stock of 32 million and there is already a shortage of nearly 10 million units. Pakistan has to build roughly 0.5 million additional units every year. Since the construction sector has 40-50 allied industries, increased investment in the sector has a multiplier effect on the overall economy and total employment. It is estimated that a unit increase in construction related expenditure generates income which is five times the cost of actual unit. Further, the construction of a three-marla residence is estimated to create employment for 421 labour days.
Of the current labour force, 7.6 percent (4.7 million) are engaged in the construction sector. This does not include employment in other allied industries like brick kilns, timber, steel, cement, etc. The sector’s share in the GDP is 2.82 percent. It has maintained a growth rate of over 9 percent in recent years. Considering the number of workers in the sector, construction is also one of the most hazardous sectors with high incidence of occupational injuries and accidents.
In a recent survey conducted by the Institute for Labour Rights, of nearly 200 construction workers at various chowks of Islamabad, the following insights came out. First, most of the construction workers are migrant workers. A majority of the interviewed workers were from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Second, while the workers gather every day on the chowk(s), the average working days per week are 2-3 days. This translates to average 10-12 working days per month. Most workers referred to the issue of ‘lack of availability of regular work’. Third, though most workers are young adults, a majority has not completed compulsory education. Fourth, despite their exposure to hazardous work, none of the interviewed workers indicated any use of personal protective equipment. Since workers are mostly unskilled without any formal training in construction work, workplace accidents are rampant.
Fifth, since average working days are 10-12 days per month, the average wage is lower than the monthly minimum wage set by the government. However, the daily wage rate (800 rupees for unskilled worker) far exceeds the minimum wage rate set by the government for unskilled workers (600 rupees) in Islamabad. Sixth, since most workers are migrants, they are either staying on footpaths or 'panahgahs' (shelter places) or sharing an overcrowded room with other workers. Seventh, while construction has registered higher growth in recent years, there is a lack of regulation. There is no regulation on the terms and conditions of employment (minimum wage, health benefits, or social security) or for contracting and subcontracting. Construction work is full of decent work deficits.
How can the state protect construction workers? The constitution of Pakistan guarantees a just and humane working environment for labour. However, these workers toil under the most abject working conditions. Given the fact that the state is the main infrastructure developer everywhere and that a huge chunk of the Public Sector Development Programme is allocated to infrastructure development, just a little focused effort in the right direction would go a long way in improving the working and living conditions of these workers. By enforcing labour standards in the public contracts, the government could help protect the rights of these workers. It could require the contractors to pay at least minimum wage, to sign an employment contract and to register such workers with social insurance institutions. Also, it is high time the construction sector was brought under the full jurisdiction of labour legislation.
Although labour laws do refer to the construction industry, due to rampant subcontracting and irregular nature of work, these workers are not effectively registered with any state institution. One way could be through forming construction worker cooperatives at the union council level or reactivating employment exchanges at union councils. Such exchanges could register construction and other informal sector workers, including domestic and home-based workers, conclude employment contracts with prospective employers on behalf of workers, and ensure their registration with social insurance institutions.
The government can place a social protection levy on the overall value of construction projects for all commercial and residential projects in the urban areas. The approach is already applied in Indonesia and India. The principal contractor/employer can pay a percentage of the total costs of the project (one to two percent) to a dedicated fund which can cover occupational injury, health/life insurance, old-age benefits and flat rate unemployment benefits. Instead of creating new institutions such as construction sector workers welfare boards, the amounts could be collected by the Federal Board of Revenue. Informal sector workers including construction workers could be provided Sehat Cards to access health services. As for occupational injury and old-age benefits, the benefits can be paid through social security institutions and EOBI and these institutions could be paid administrative expenses.
Islamabad alone has more than 20 union councils and nearly 60 housing societies where thousands of workers are engaged in private and commercial construction activities. The piloting could be started from the capital. Decent and productive work for construction workers is within reach if the government acts accordingly.
This article is based on a forthcoming report by the Institute for Labour Rights on the state of workers’ rights in the construction sector.
The writer is the founder of theInstitute for Labour Rights (The Whistlers).
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