Whenever a socio-legal problem flares up, one can bet on two things to happen. Bollywood will make a film on it; and law-makers will pass legislation to solve it. Both will soon fade from public memory. There are several social welfare laws that are passed and forgotten. Two of them are meant to protect unorganised construction workers.
The construction industry is said to be the second largest one after agriculture. It is labour-intensive, employing 20 million and it is estimated that every Rs 1 crore invested on construction project generates employment of 22,000 unskilled man-days and 23,000 skilled or semi-skilled man-days. Recognising its importance, Parliament passed the Building and Other Construction Workers (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act 1996 and the Building and Other Construction Workers’ Welfare Cess Act 1996.
The government stated in the Preamble that construction works are characterised by their inherent risk to the life and limb of workers. The work is also characterised by its casual nature, temporary relationship between employer and employee, uncertain working hours, lack of basic amenities and inadequacy of welfare facilities. Although the provisions of various labour laws like the Minimum Wages Act, Contract Labour (Regulation & Abolition) Act and Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment & Conditions of Services) Act are applicable to building workers, there was no comprehensive central legislation for this category of workers. The two enactments were aimed to improve matters.
After nearly 15 years, the central and state governments have done little to implement these laws. Ten years after the laws came into force, a public interest petition was moved in the Supreme Court pointing out the non-implementation of the provisions of the Acts (National Campaign for Central Legislation on Construction Labour vs Union of India). The court passed several orders over the years asking state governments to implement the main provisions of the law. There was little response. Last week, the court took a tough stand and summoned five top labour officers in the country to be present in the Chief Justice’s court and explain the lapse.
The dubious honour goes to the Union Labour Secretary, the Director General of Inspection, Government of India, and Labour Secretaries of Nagaland, Meghalaya and Lakshdweep.
The court stated that many among the 36 states and Union territories have not taken even the initial steps. They have not appointed “Registration Officers” before whom the employers of workers have to register their establishments. They have also ignored their obligation to constitute state welfare boards.
Around this time last year, the court had passed 11 detailed directions to state governments. Constitution of welfare boards, holding regular meetings, creating awareness through the media were some of the recommendations. The Comptroller and Auditor General was asked to audit the implementation of the law. Even as late as November last year, there was no progress. The court recorded that the Union Government has also not done its part. A chart was prepared to verify the action taken by governments.
After studying the chart, the court wrote: “It is obvious that most of the states have defaulted in complying with the provisions of the Act and some of them, in fact, have not even constituted state welfare boards despite the writ petition having been pending since 2006 and the court having issued various directions in that regard.” Thus the court was forced to take contempt-notice state-wise. Summoning the top babus was one such step.
Some of the big states with huge infrastructure projects are also culpable in flouting the laws. Among them are Maharashtra, Goa, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand. As a preliminary step, their labour secretaries have been impleaded in the case. No worker has been registered as a construction labourer in Assam, Mizoram, Sikkim and Jammu & Kashmir. The governments have not collected statutory cess for the welfare of workers (like food and education of their children). The order underlined that the “disobedience” of earlier directions persisted over a long period and the court had no choice but to take contempt of court action.
The capital has seen huge projects like the Commonwealth Games and the metro work. Therefore, the Delhi High Court has also taken up the issue, which should be emulated by major high courts in the country like that of Mumbai. The Delhi High Court has also summoned senior officials before them to explain their lapse. Cynics may not see much change in the hearts of the bureaucrats who have different compulsions. But the country has come to such a pass that unless the courts prod the executive, risking criticism, welfare laws will remain drawing-room decorations of the ruling elite.