The Covid-19 crisis has emphasized the invisibility of migrant workers and brought their lives and vulnerabilities into the public debate. It has also highlighted how little attention in housing and labour studies has been paid to those workers who live in work establishments and worksites under the constant gaze of supervisors, contractors and employers. The Prayas Centre for Labour Research and Action’s recent report titled Living at Worksites: Policy and Governance for Migrant Worker Housing in Ahmedabad’s Construction Sector authored by Renu Desai, an independent researcher based in Ahmedabad, fills this critical gap.
Desai estimates about 1500 ongoing construction projects in Ahmedabad, indicative that a large number of construction workers live in the city at a time, many of these in on-site housing provided by contractors and builders. Estimating the scale of construction activity for this report was no straightforward exercise, so it should be no surprise that enumerating informal sector workers has been challenging for Indian cities. To construct a reasonable understanding of the number of active construction sites in the city, Desai had to draw on three disparate datasets: projects registered under the Building and Other Construction Workers (BOCW) Act in Ahmedabad district, the development and building use permissions granted by the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC) and the real estate projects registered in Ahmedabad under the Gujarat Real Estate Regulatory Authority (RERA).
Desai’s findings on enforcement of regulations offer some answers to questions that are commonly being raised in the Covid-19 context about why regulations have failed to assure decent housing and living for migrants in the city. She finds that laws like the Interstate Migrant Workers Act 1979 which clearly outline the responsibilities of employers towards worker housing are poorly implemented, with inspectors rarely visiting sites. On the other hand, BOCW inspectors are not concerned with housing conditions since the act, while requiring that temporary housing and certain other facilities be provided to workers on site, does not specify any norms for this provision. While the development permissions given by AMC and Ahmedabad Urban Development Authority (AUDA) require temporary accommodation to be provided to workers, there are no norms and standards specified by them either. Additionally, water and sewage connections to sites are only given after the building use permissions are granted, impeding the provision of quality basic services for on-site worker housing. Contract and tender norms for public sector projects also place all responsibilities on contractors and none on government agencies. In a conversation about the report with the author, she also pointed out that from discussions with stakeholders after the release of the report, it has become clear that contractors do not adequately fulfil these responsibilities not only because of lack of monitoring but because contracts and tenders do not include separate budgetary provisions for worker housing, thus prompting minimum action on their part.
Given this situation, it appears that there is presently very little regulatory scaffolding to ensure decent provision of on-site housing, though some openings might be available in the pending Labour Code on Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions. Moreover, the absence of proper systems to manage and share databases of construction projects across the AMC, AUDA, RERA and labour department impedes finding technological and data-based solutions to some of these issues of compliance.
This report offers rich insights into how worker housing is organised on site and links between the housing setup and the recruitment and contracting chain within the sector (at least in medium and large-scale projects). Desai finds that generally, RCC and masonry workers in Ahmedabad tend to be seasonal migrants and live on site whereas the housing choice varies across sites for other types of workers: While seasonal migrant workers, both single male migrants and family migrants, tend to live on site, more settled migrants and local workers make their own arrangements in rental housing nearby. These nuances of who gets to live on site and who opts out of on-site accommodation tell an insightful story not only of how construction processes are organised and which segments of labour have more agency, but also of the negotiations that contractors have to make with developers and other contractors about space to house workers.
While direct arrangements by the developer significantly impact housing quality on construction sites, another factor shaping housing provisioning appears to be the number and kind of contractors – large, mid-sized or small-scale – engaged by the developer in executing the construction work. While large contractors have the wherewithal to make decent arrangements for workers, small contractors do not, and the capacity of mid-sized contractors varies. The interviews with contractors, arguably the most interesting part of this report, offer glimpses into the kinship and native place connections that drive recruitment of labour, and also of their often stable links with builders. Contractors also offer insights into the variations in practices by different developers when it comes to housing and amenities like creches and schools. Strikingly, Desai finds that absolutely no importance is accorded to the subject of labour in conversations within the developer community. In interviews with developers, she finds their motivations to provide on-site worker housing have little to do with regulatory frameworks and much more to do with retaining labour. Moreover, they view enhanced regulation as an avenue for corruption and do not see merit in it.
Desai finds that the availability of land for worker housing can be a challenge for private sector developers. Whereas projects on the city’s periphery can find space on the edge of the site or lease land from farmers at affordable prices, developers of inner city projects lease land from the AMC or from private landowners of vacant lands to construct temporary housing at significant costs. Interestingly, the public sector project included in the study also did not get free land from the AMC for worker housing. The modality of construction of worker housing itself seems like a hodgepodge of various practices and spatial configurations; on some sites, workers were provided materials and asked to build themselves, at other sites various contractors built as per their own designs with nothing standardised, and one case had a uniform layout built by a single entity for the use of all contractors involved. While corrugated metal sheets were ubiquitous, projects used a variety of materials including brick, PVC sheets, aerocon sheets, shuttering panels, and precast concrete panels to build temporary housing. Workers living in under-construction buildings were found to be in the worst condition, with significant health and safety concerns.
As mentioned before, in the absence of legal connections, the provision of water and sanitation are key concerns for temporary worker housing. Desai finds that on most sites visited for the study (which were of the larger developers and contractors), the developers or contractors provided filtered or RO water for drinking and water from on-site bore-wells or tankers was provided for other purposes. The contractors also built shared toilets, but since emptying soak pits regularly was expensive, some had illegal connections to municipal sewers. Open defecation as a practice was not uncommon. On the other hand, tie-ups with NGOs for creche and primary health facilities were fairly common, given that the sites visited were of larger developers and contractors.
Desai’s detailed documentation includes cases of worker housing in Kerala and Navi Mumbai, shelter homes in Ahmedabad as well as international examples. She also includes analysis of the Gujarat BOCW and state welfare schemes for housing and basic services. These analyses push the policy discussion beyond on-site housing for construction workers to take a broader view of the provision of housing and essential services to informal sector workers as significant number of construction workers are also employed as casual labour, who make their own housing arrangements in the city. In this context, she does not lose the opportunity to underscore the vital contribution that the upgrading of informal settlements can make in this regard, as well as place a spotlight on the urgent need to expand and upgrade the coverage of homeless shelters. She also suggests a policy focus on the design and supply of rental housing, keeping in mind the heterogenous needs of migrant workers. Finally, she makes a pitch for the reservation of land for migrant housing projects and urges the linking of settled migrant workers to government schemes wherever possible.
This is one of the most painstakingly researched reports I have read on a subject that some would consider dry, but which has widespread impacts on a significant portion of the country’s workers. After all, the construction sector is the second largest employer after agriculture and a systematic drive to find improved solutions for on-site worker housing can have far reaching impacts. As Desai suggests, a solid beginning towards this would be to revisit and re-align regulatory, planning and contractual processes to the objective of securing improved housing conditions for workers.