Building Bridges 2017: The International Tradeswomen’s Conference in India

On January 17-20, the Delegation was hosted by the V.V. Giri National Labour Institute in Noida, India. We stayed in the very comfortable Institute dorms and were provided with wonderful meals by the Institute staff. On Wednesday and Thursday, the 18th and 19th, we participated in a conference with government, labour and civic leader and organizers. Operating Engineer Holly Brown will give you and introduction to the events and the Delegates from the US below.


“We arrived in New Delhi, DRIVING FROM THE AIRPORT WAS A TRUE EXPERIENCE. The smog made it uncomfortable to breath. We stayed at the Smyle Inn, which is a Hostel. We were two to a room and breakfast was included. People carve out any spot to sell things and live, burning fires on the sidewalk for warmth. Susan made sure everything went smoothly.

We then went to stay at the VV Giri National Labour Institute. It was an honor to be part of the First Building Bridges International Tradeswomen Conference. When I walked into the conference it was more than I could have hoped for. We all had a part in the conference, I talked about apprenticeship programs. It was a two-day conference with highly respected people. We each talked about our career, how we got started, struggles, harassment on the job, etc.

We learned that they just started a construction workers’ welfare board. Most of the workers in construction are called the untouchables [Dalits]. They get paid in cash and in most cases they are not even listed on payroll. Women do all the unskilled work while the men do the skilled jobs. They do not even get minimum wage and their wage scales differ from person to person.

Just to name a few of the people who attended the conference from India: Shri Manish Kumar Gupta director General, VVGNLI & Joint Secretary, Shri Rajeev Arrora Joint Secratary, Labor and Employment. Dr Ratna Sudarshan Former Director, Institute of Social Science, Shri Subhash Bhatnagar Founder, NIRMAMA Society, Shri Piyush Sharama, Joint Labour Commissioner, Ms Mridula Bajaj Mobile Creche Dehli, Ms SwapnaKarve Delhi Construction Welfare Board just to name a few. There are 15 of us in all: Shamaiah Turner, Sheetmetal apprentice; Holly Brown, Operating Engineers Local 3 JATC Coordinator; Kelly McClellen, IUOE; Brian Doherty, Metropolitan Building Trades and Labour; Janet Butler, Federal Concrete Inc (Employer); Noreen Buckley , Electrician going into apprenticeship; Marcus McClanahan, Labourer; Linda Oba, Carpenter; Denise Soza, IBEW; Kathleen Santora, Painter; Edwina Patterson, Labourer; Susan Moir, UMassBoston; Diane Factor, Occupational Health & Safety; and Willa Factor, delegation assistant.

Because of the economic bust with the change of money there has not been a lot of women on job sites. Almost everything is done by hand. A Big Thanks to VV Giri National Labour Institute for taking such good care of us.”

— Holy Brown, Operating Engineers


Holly (left) describes construction apprenticeship in the US at VV Giri

At the conference, a Special Issue of VV Giri’s journal Labour and Development was released. The journal focused on Gender, Work and Development and included an article on the Delegation and the Building Bridges project, “BUILDING BRIDGES: A COMPARATIVE STUDY OF WOMEN WORKING IN THE CONSTRUCTION INDUSTRY IN INDIA AND THE US, by Dr. Susan Moir.” The journal is posted on the blog home page.


Official release of the special issue on Gender, Work and Development

VV Giri sent the following media advisory on the conference to press in India.

Building Bridges 2017: The International Tradeswomen’s Conference in India

(A Collaborative Initiative by the V.V. Giri National Labour Institute & Labour Resource Centre, University of Massachusetts, Boston)

18-19 January, 2017

The V.V.Giri National Labour Institute in collaboration with Labour Resource Centre and University of Massachusetts, Boston USA organized a two day International Conference Building Bridges 2017: The International Tradeswomen’s Conference in India from January 18-19 2017. The conference brought together fifteen tradeswomen delegation from US to share their experiences and information pertaining to the construction industry and engage in a dialogue and discussion with the Government, Trade Unions, Civil Society Organizations, and Academia for providing inputs for policy formulation related to the construction industry in India.

The Director General, VVGNLI Shri. Manish Kumar Gupta welcomed the participants and highlighted that the conference would strengthen international relationships and experience sharing around the issue of gender and construction industry in the world and enable in  working towards joint policy initiatives on labour engaged in construction industry. Dr. Susan Moir, Director, Labour Resource Centre UMASS, Boston introduced the theme of the conference and provided a background of the conference. The conference was inaugurated by Shri. Rajeev Arora, joint Secretary, Labour and Employment, Government of India. In his inaugural address, Sri Rajeev Arora highlighted on the commitment of the government for the welfare of construction workers and also reiterated on the need for skill development of women workers in the construction industry. A Special issue of the Institute’s Journal, Labour and Development on the theme based on Gender, Work and Development was also released in the conference. The conference was attended by a fifteen member US delegation, Senior Officials from Ministry of Labour, Officers from the Labour Department, officers from other ministries, academicians, Senior leaders from Trade Unions, Members of Civil Society organisations, faculty members and officers of VVGNLI.

The vote of thanks was given by Dr. Ellina Samantroy, Associate Fellow, VVGNLI.

Each Delegate participated in a panel on subjects that included “What US Tradeswomen do to Work”, Labour Standards in the US, Apprenticeship, Health and Safety and Organization Building.


Three tradeswomen give their thoughts and impressions below.

From Dee Soza, California Journeywoman Electrician


Dee (right) receives honorary plaque from VV Giri Labour Institute

“It is eight days into our Tradeswomen Delegation, and every moment of everyday has been filled with colorful sights, bustling sounds, at times to the point of needing earplugs, and unexpected emotions. Dr. Susan Moir has done a tremendous job in organizing every detail of our amazing trip without missing a beat. Our first few nights we stayed in a Hostel in the Main Bazaar right in the middle of the hustle and bustle. The weather was quite cold and we were lucky to get in a quick warm shower in the small rooms we shared with a bunkmate. The narrow alley to get to our hostel was filled with street vendors, small stores, places to eat, cobble stones, dogs, unknown scents, and the occasional scurry of nice fat rats.

We completed our first conference in Delhi at the V.V. Giri National Labour Institute. This two-day conference brought Government officials, and Professors of womens’ studies, labour studies, and social studies. I learned Construction in India is the largest non-agricultural form of employment. One in five workers work in construction where the normal work-day is twelve hours. Over 90% of construction work is classified as “informal”, or as we may call it at home “the underground economy”, where they are paid cash for their work. Two young women from India who work in construction spoke and are paid 250 rupees a day, equal to $3.67 U.S.

Our U.S. delegation shared our experiences and successes being skilled union Tradeswomen. The members of the conference were eager, surprised, and encouraged to hear us speak. The members of the conference were very gracious hosts and we were served traditional delicious meals. We have now traveled to Mumbai where we are being hosted by the Tata Institute of Social Science for our second conference.”

From Noreen Buckley, California Apprentice Electrician


Noreen (left) and Laborer Marcus McClanahan (right) close the conference with their impressions

The level of hospitality and openness that the Indian people have shown us has humbled me. In this two-day conference, various voices presented the many layers surrounding women construction workers in India. The US delegation heard from members of the government and the ways in which they are establishing policy and creating programs to support the Indian construction workers as a whole.

The Indian labor organizers and union representatives shared the work they are doing to gain rights for construction workers around pay, safety standards on the job site, and pension after retirement as well as spreading that information to the workers, informing them that this option is available to them. The unions admittedly have tried to ignore the issue of women in construction only to now acknowledge that it is not going away. We sat on panels with activists who have been fighting for the basic needs of construction workers, specifically women construction workers. And we listened to academics that have studied and researched women construction workers, identifying the many hurdles they face in the field and their daily lives.

With just such a short time together, the Indian members did a great job in painting the picture of Indian cultural, governmental, economic, and social ways of life and how they all factor into the struggle that women construction workers face in their country. Before arriving in India, it was hard for me to see how the US and India could share best practices and benefit each other when our countries are on two different socio-economic levels. We talk about a fair wage for US union constructions workers being between $60-90/hour (for both genders) while 300 rupees a day ($4.50 US) is the norm for Indian female construction workers. But, the core issues that we as US Tradeswomen face are the same as Indian tradeswomen.

  • Access to childcare:
    • India – the women who “chose” to work outside the home are still responsible for all household duties and looking after the children.
    • US – the struggle women have to set up childcare (that is not family) when a job starts at 6:00 am. The acceptance and allowing of missing work to tend to a sick child as part of the cultural (as it is with more traditional female professions)
  • Equal pay for equal work:
    • India – women construction workers often work as a family, side by side with their male counterpart. The women always receives less pay then the man and often do not actually receive the money, rather her pay is given to the husband, father, male that she is with.
    • US – as a country, women still make ¾ of every $1.00 that men earn.    Making
  • Policy versus Implementing Policy:
    • India – many of the Indian panelists acknowledged, and at times joked, that Indians are great at making laws and bad at enforcing them.  The Indian government has taken steps, on paper only, to address some of the hurdles of women and construction workers
    • US – in 1978, Carter signed a law that 6.9% of the federal funded construction workforce has to be women.  To date, nationally we are roughly a little under 3% and we were slightly above 2% when the law was created.
  • Cultural perceptions of what women can and cannot do:
    • India – women are not strong enough, women are not smart enough, women will not be respected, women cannot lead…
    • US– women are not strong enough, women are not smart enough, women will not be respected, women cannot lead…
  • Harassment and Sexual harassment:
    • India – As a response to harassment of women, this country has established separate ladies’ cars on trains, designated ladies only seats on buses and just yesterday, I read that Air India (a local Indian airline) is debating if fights should have ladies only seating options.
    • US – I would go out on a limb and say that ever member of this delegation could share a story of workplace harassment and majority of the US female population could as well.

I have barely touched on the richness of this conference, the people, the discussion, the stories. We, as a delegation, are moving on with more questions than answers regarding the growth of tradeswomen in India and the United States.

From Kelly McClellen, Missouri Operating Engineer and member of Heartland Women in Trades


Kelly (left) discusses tradeswomen’s health and safety issues

“My major take from the conference is that women here in India have no real rights as citizens except on paper. Men do not have respect for women and it’s sad to see.  Men and women were created to work together to make a great team. Not one better than the other. The policy makers and advocates have a great prospective on how life should be practiced but they haven’t found a way to teach or even spread the policies to the workers.  India needs a lot more activists and business representative speaking and taking action out in the field.  It is going to take an army of people to turn this country around. The fact that this group of ladies can bring inspiration and passion to these people is incredible and humbling!”

A few more thoughts on the conference:

  • Women’s unpaid labor is an issue globally and particularly in India where women do 100% of household work– work that is not counted and which prevents many women from being fully employed in the formal economy. The Delegation is preparing a proposal to the Government of India that a comprehensive Time Use Survey be conducted to create an accurate statistical portrait of the contributions to the national economy of unpaid labor by Indian women.

  • Dr. Sakshi Khurana presented qualitative interview research she has done with women construction workers in Delhi. She supported results from my research here in India in 2016: Women strongly identify as construction workers and have pride in being members of the industry.

  • We first raised our question, “Why can’t women be Masons?,” at the VV Giri conference. Many participants agreed that there is a need to train India’s women construction workers in skilled work and that masonry is a viable entry level skill. The Archana Women’s Centre in Kerala and the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) have created model programs that struggle without wider political and economic support. Joint Secretary for Labour and Employment for the Government of India, Shri Rajeev Arora, who gave the inaugural address at the conference, stated that training resources should be reserved for training women to be masons in the construction industry.

  • Representatives from Mobile Creche in Delhi, including Executive Director Mridula Bajaj and Co-Founder Devika Singh, attended the conference. They brought two women construction workers with them. Aside from the US Tradeswomen Delegates, these were the only construction workers in attendance. All agreed that the problems are immense, the solutions difficult and no real change will occur until the women themselves are brought into the rooms where the discussions are happening and the strategies developed.

Love and peace,



About susanmoir2015

Researcher, feminist, labor activist.
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3 Responses to Building Bridges 2017: The International Tradeswomen’s Conference in India

  1. Marsha Joan Perlman says:

    This was an excellent conference that you attended. I learned so much about small and large detaials of Indian culture. I was surprised to read so many womens’ idea and thoughts, so well expressed by people who do not have a high level of education. And for ones who don’t get paid at all, they seemed resigned and I wonder why they continue. I also question if it is possible for several women to organize child care among themselves or is this something their husbands wouldn’t accept.
    You did an excellent job organizing all that you did in a culture that is so different from your own.
    Watch out, Is Trump looking for an ambassador to India?


  2. Pingback: What’s happening with Building Bridges with the women construction workers of India… and across the world? | Building bridges: A comparative study of women working in the construction industry in India and the US

  3. Pingback: Still Building Bridges: US Tradeswomen are returning to India | Building bridges: A comparative study of women working in the construction industry in India and the US

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