Contractors flay inflated wage demand, plead for control mechanism

Migrant labourers hold construction industry under siege
Report by: 
ROOPA LALL
Port Blair
24 May 2017

The key to creating  jobs for the poor masses in India lies in the construction sector which is pivotal to improving the productivity of the economy, says a study by the National Sample Survey Organization. The industry in this remote territory too has witnessed a boom in the recent years. With massive infrastructure development projects underway right from the north to the southern-most tip of this archipelago, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands has registered a surge in the population of migrant labourers from different parts of the country particularly West Bengal, Orissa, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh etc. But what has emerged as a major concern for the industry is the inflated wage demand by the labourers.
According to reports, the construction industry here currently pays the most to its daily wage labourers compared to other parts of the country. For different categories of works, the migrants labourers from mainland has defined their own set of daily wage more than double prescribed by the government. For instance, a mason engaged for eight hours in a day charges more than Rs 700, while labourers engaged for casting demand more than Rs 800 for a day’s work. Even an ordinary laborer charges no  less that Rs 500 per day whereas the minimum wages fixed by the government is around Rs 300  per day.
“Such unjustified wage demand by the labourers who migrated from other parts of the country is taking the construction industry here for a ride. After bagging contracts from government and private agencies, we fall under legal obligation to complete the project as per definite terms and conditions. But owing to such inflated rates of daily labourers, our cost estimates go awry. We’re compelled to dole out extra money from our pockets on hiring labourers so as to complete the project within the deadline as per the terms of the contract and to prevent our firms from being blacklisted,” said a Class III Construction Contractor speaking to EOI. “What’s more disturbing is the uncouth behavior of these laborers. If one tries to negotiate with the wage demand, they jeer at us often using repulsive language. Under such situation, being a part of the construction industry has become difficult for several contractors in these islands. The local administration should devise some mechanism to restrain the monopoly of the migrant labourers in the interest of the industry,” said another contractor.
Admitting the problem, the Secretary of Builders Association of India (BAI), A & N Centre, Mr Ravi Rungta blamed some government schemes intended for the rural sectors for the quandary. “One cannot find a single labourer these days, who is ready to work as per the rates fixed by the government. They demand much higher and owing to obligations, contractors are forced to pay double the amount to each worker for eight hours of a day’s toil. Schemes like NREGA have made the people here idle as they manage to earn their living without hard slog. Such being the situation, the migrant labourers from mainland have gained the edge over the local labour force,” claimed Mr Rungta.
Asked whether BAI has registered any complaint with the office of the Labour Commissioner for violation of minimum wage rules, Mr Rungta said that if any such complaint in registered, the labourers may completely abandon works and the construction industry will come to a halt. “It’s a precarious situation. Contractors are bound to abide by the terms and conditions of the contract executed with the government agencies and complete the project within stipulated time. They can’t afford to take chances and are compelled to accede to the demands of the labourers, though unjustified. Even in the case of EPF subscriptions, contractors are facing problems. While the employers are ready to pay their part of contribution, it is the labourers who decline to part with their share. We’re totally helpless,” added Mr Rungta. The National Council Member of Builders Association of India, A & N State Centre, Smt Jaya echoed the views of Mr Ravi Rungta. “Contractors are forced to pay Rs 400-450 per day to unskilled workers, while they pay around Rs 650 to 700  to skilled ones for eight hours of work in a day,” she informed.
“It has become like a fish or vegetable market where vendors demand money as per their whims and fancies from customers,” remarked Mr Madhusudan Baidya, Labour Commissioner. I discovered the practice during a visit to Bhatu Basti recently for some personal work. They (labourers) demanded Rs 600-700 for a petty building work. Stunned with the exaggerated demand, I left the spot in a jiffy, he said.
“This is because of the massive demand of labourers in these islands. There is acute shortage of human resource mainly for the construction sector here and as such many labour contractors hire people from mainland. Their numbers have grown considerably in the recent years and they have now gained total control of the market. Moreover, the local labour force prefers to remain  jobless rather than assume vocation as labourers in the construction sector. In my opinion, the youth of these islands should come forward as work in the construction industry without any hesitation,” said Mr Baidya adding that players in the industry should also decline such extravagant wage demand by the labourers in order to bring the situation under control.