Priyanka Tomar reports on the silent Workforce that renders great service on construction sites across India
Woman the most beautiful and strong creation of God, right from bringing a child into the world and teaching him/her to become a better individual play a marvelous role. It is the reason why women deserve respect. Recognising all the contributions and their excellent work in different fields, we celebrate women’s day every year with so much of zeal. So, remembering that on this women’s day also, let’s honour the silent workforce of women that goes unnoticed. Across towns and cities in India, it is not uncommon to see women– cleaning building sites, carrying bricks and shoveling gravel – helping construct the infrastructure necessary for the country’s economic and social development. They help build roads, railway tracks, airports, and offices. They lay pipes for clean water supplies, cables for telecommunications, and dig the drains for sewage systems.
Construction is an industry perched on or at least near the top of the “super male-dominated industries” spectrum. Certainly female on-site construction workers are scarce. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), construction jobs in most countries are undertaken almost exclusively by men. However, in the countries of South Asia women often perform important but unskilled tasks for low pay. In India it is estimated that up to 30 per cent of construction workers are women. They are integrated into the bottom end of the industry, as unskilled workers or head-load carriers. And while skill and competence are most important, the struggle is that women need to go the extra mile to make their accomplishments seen — something that may not come naturally.
However, from masonry, steel fixing and painting to plumbing, there is nothing these women cannot do. In a very famous quote, Gandhiji said, ‘Intellectually, mentally as well as spiritually, woman is equivalent to a male and she can participate in every activity,” and these women are definitely proving this right. So, let’s meet these industrious and hard working women masons and construction workers of India, who are gradually making a mark in this male dominated industry:
Donning bright yellow helmets and pulling on loose grey shirts over their saris, within minutes they get the place humming with activity. They operate the cement mixers with panache, mix concrete in the right proportion, take measurements and erect shuttering /formwork to pour concrete. They even cut, bend and tie steel to place reinforcements inside the shuttering and efficiently build stone masonry foundations.
This all-women construction team from Uttar Pradesh, is possibly the first-of-its-kind in India, would have erected 10 large warehouses on this vast site in Sonbhadra district of Uttar Pradesh.
In another classic case of life pre-empting art and outdoing it, the story of Rajkumari, Saroj and Gomati, from Lashkar, a small village near Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh, is like something straight out of a movie. These three women got together and built the first public toilet in their village, and they did it on their own, without waiting for the government or their husbands.
For Rajkumari, Saroja and Gomati, the real-life counterparts of “Toilet — EPK’s” female protagonist Jaya, lack of sanitation was about more than dignity.
But unlike “Toilet — EPK” where the female protagonist storms out of the house while her husband comes around to save the day, Gomati, Rajkumari and Saroj brought about a silent revolution in the village. This way one cannot neglect the fact that female labour has been an important segment of the workforce of India. With the changing Socio-economic scenario, women’s productive roles have assumed new dimensions. The observance of the International Women’s Year in the last quarter of the 20th century was a historic landmark in the calendar of women’s progress.
Frankly speaking, it was in recognition of crucial importance and need that women’s participation has always been necessary for the success of social and economic development. The status of women in India has been many ups and downs. Now, women have been given equal opportunities to compete with men and one another. However, in the early 20th century women were mostly relegated to the home and their place was in the kitchen. But last century has witnessed a great deal of independence and autonomy for many countries. Women have been equal fighters for freedom and there lies the secret of their success.
They have emerged out of their kitchens and taken their places along with the men in becoming supplementary breadwinners. In yet another classic example, the story of a group of women who works in a construction site in Udyog Vihar, Gurgaon, is much inspiring to look. When Sarita was told she would be accompanying her husband to work in the city, she was thrilled at the prospect of a better life than in the drought-prone village of Jhansi where she grew up. Declining farm sizes, rising mechanisation, and consequently dwindling labour demands in agriculture were the reasons that forced this group of women to leave their village and migrate to city for a better life. But arriving in Delhi 12 years ago, with her husband and dozens of others, Sarita was shown a make-shift tent home on a pavement and realized that city life would not be what she had expected.
Meanwhile, Urmila, who is in her 50s, looks older than her age but is young at heart; says, she now likes working at the construction sites and is even willing to migrate to other sites, if required. Even one from the group said, she feels ill inside when her son sometimes asked her to take rest from work. Babita says, “I feel extremely happy working here because now I am not dependent on others for my needs. Here we are paid equal to men i.e., 300 per day and also get the respect which we deserve.” They learn plumbing, tile laying and painting, a prospect that excites this group of women who works as equal as the men and enjoys every bit of their life independently.
However, in India, it is not uncommon to see women like these but everyone is not as lucky as this group of women. As per the views of activists, who are trying to campaign for better treatment of women in the construction industry, ‘Women are often unaware of their rights or scared to complain.’ Out of India’s 40 million construction workers, they are less recognized than male workers with lower pay and often prone to safety hazards and sexual harassment. “There are two types of construction workers – those living in the cities, and those who are migrants. It is the migrants who have a harder time,” has said Martha Chen of the global network Women in Informal Employment: Globalising and Organising. “Their living conditions are much worse. They have no water supplies and toilets, and nowhere to leave the children when they work.”
Most women come with their husbands, and often with their infant children who are seen playing amongst the piles of bricks and gravel as their parents’ labour under the blazing summer sun. Women labourers are often paid less than men. Generally, when you ask female workers in Delhi they will mostly say that, they earned 250 rupees ($4) a day compared to 450 rupees paid to men for the same work as it is generally accepted in the industry that women be paid less. Another challenge what women faces is trying to convince everyone out there that they are capable of constructing a house or a road, or doing water-proofing or electrical or plumbing work. Mostly, every client thinks that women can’t do the job with the same quality and speed as men do.
“They say that women can’t do this work so it is very difficult to invade into this male-dominated work. But slowly and steadily we are making progress,” said a woman worker. Women in the construction industry in India do the lift-and-carry work. They climb the scaffoldings with the bricks and soil on their heads. The hazards they face are often much higher than men. However, industry officials admit the discrimination in wages and recognition of skills of female workers, but say attitudes are beginning to change among the country’s bigger companies. There is definitely a certain amount of awakening among contractors. Companies themselves now recognize the need for social care. Basic minimum facilities such as crèches are increasingly being provided on sites and women are being afforded a lot more respect.
However, as of today there are still, a large percentage of women, especially in the rural areas who need to understand their rights and advantages. India is striving to provide the women equal status in society. Today, women can be proud that she is a home maker and an equal partner to the progress of our society.
“Working on the construction sites for more than 11 years, I have been through many difficult circumstances and situations. In starting, the contractors always complain that we women are weak and don’t work fast enough, but that’s not true. We work just as hard.”
Intellectually, mentally as well as spiritually, woman is equivalent to a male and she can participate in every activity
— Mahatma Gandhi