A raw deal

They build homes for others, but are left with no security for themselves...

We barely give them a glance as we pass by on our way to plush offices, spacious homes, shopping malls or theatres. Yet theirs are the hands that help build these structures of work and play. Carrying head loads of bricks, cement or sand that are often too heavy for their frail frames, keeping a wary eye on infants swinging from makeshift cloth cradles and gulping down their meagre midday meal, they barely manage to subsist. Woman construction workers are called chithal as opposed to the male workers who are referred to as periyal. The nomenclature itself eloquently spells out their inequality in their profession, at home and in society.

Women who make up a third (30,000) of the one-lakh construction labour force in the city are paid much less than the men. "If we work in a company (big builders) we get even less than if we freelance — Rs. 60 a day as opposed to Rs. 100. But one is assured of work six days a week," they say. Freelancing means hanging around at a specified spot in the market while the masons come and hire you. "They may not do so at all on some days," says Radha (55), who has been a construction worker since the age of ten, following in the footsteps of her mother. "I have seen the wages rise from five and a half annas to the present amount. But women have a hard life," she shakes her head in distress. "I would rather do this than be a maid," her neighbour Thamizharasi joins in. "I tried my hand at it. The continual dipping of hands in soap suds and the cleaning of plates with leftover bones... it was awful," she shudders. "And all you get is Rs. 300 to Rs. 500 a month."

"It is during the monsoon and during childbirth that we incur the greatest debts," states Rajathi. "Even their saris and utensils land up in the pawn shop," says Geetha Ramakrishnan, a former lecturer in physics who has been working for the welfare of this unorganised sector since 1979, helping them, along with others, to form themselves into unions and fight for their benefits. "Many of them are deserted women and widows. Drinking and polygamy are the major problems the married women face. Wife beating should be made a cognisable offence," says Geetha, her calm face flashing anger. "ESI benefits, housing and crèches are urgently needed. The Tamil Nadu Construction Workers' Welfare Board provides some benefits. But maternity and even death dues do not come on time and they face the ire of vettiyans. The Board can give them 30 kg of rice during the monsoon, else they go hungry."

"When I hurt myself at the site, I just apply a bandage and go to work whereas my husband, also a construction worker, stays at home when he suffers a similar injury," says Vijaya. "The men give us a meagre amount and abuse us if we do not prepare a fine meal," exclaim her colleagues Krishnaveni and Chandra.

And though the men do heavier work, the difference of Rs. 150 to Rs. 100 is too much, they all feel. "What's more, sometimes the periyal make us do their work too!"

The cry of construction workers, "we build homes for others but have no homes of our own," takes on a special poignancy when you visit the pavement dwellers on Greams Road. Nearly 35 families live here. Many of them are migrant labour. Thangammal has lived on this pavement for 45 years. "I was born here and had my baby here," says Thamizharasi.

The women bathe at the crack of dawn using their saris as shields and during their menstrual cycles their problems get compounded. In addition they have to put up with passes made by drunks on their way from the cinema at night.

Female children take care of younger siblings and then get sucked into construction work; so the inequality is perpetuated.

Globalisation and mechanisation have sliced through the life of construction workers hacking out huge chunks of opportunity.

"It is estimated they will be reduced to 1/20th in number," says Geetha. "Considering the male-female ratio, where will it leave the unskilled women? And when prefabricated dwellings come"...

The sentence hovers in the air with the menace of any of the monstrous machines which mix, roar and spill their contents and whose blades move as inexorably as the wheels of time.

From The Hindu dated 19/01/2006

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