A Researcher’s View: Life is Better in Kerala for India’s Women Construction Workers

The tradeswomen in India in November 2019 were joined for part of the training exchange by Chantal Krcmar, a University of Massachusetts Boston doctoral student who is doing research on women working in the construction industry in India. Here are Chantal’s thoughts on the visit.

by Chantal Krcmar

I live in Mumbai, one of the most populated, most polluted, noisiest, crowded cities in the world. The excesses of Bollywood and severe deprivation of poverty live side-by-side. It’s an exciting, exhausting, wacky place to live. I am doing my PhD research on the ways in which women who work in the construction industry of India think about and experience their own Human Security. Human Security is a concept that comes out of the United Nations Development Program, which elevates the security of individuals and recognizes that too often the security of states or nations is honored above humans. Very few scholars have looked at what Human Security means to construction workers, a huge oversight in our understanding of labor issues.

chantal family

Chantal and her family, Hemanta, Anamika and Rahul

Most of my fieldwork has occurred in Mumbai. I have spoken to women who wait at street intersections hoping to get a day’s work at a construction site (naka laborers), to women who live on the very construction sites on which they work (essentially, extremely un-glamorous and un-sanitary camping), to a VP of India’s second largest construction contracting company, and to NGO (non-profit) staff who work with and on behalf of construction workers in India.

Some key things to know about the construction industry in India:

  • Of the estimated 180 million construction workers worldwide, 50 million are in India (Srivastava & Jha, 2016).
  • The construction industry is India’s second largest employer (second only to agriculture).
  • The International Labor Organization (ILO) deems construction work one of the most dangerous types of work in the world.
  • The vast majority of construction workers in India (97%) are informal, meaning they have no contracts, no security, and most often no access to medical care, basic sanitation and safety on the worksite.
  • Construction workers “live [and work] in some of the most deplorable conditions” (Bhattachryya & Korinek, 2007).
  • About 30-40% of construction workers in India are women (it’s about 2-3% in the US).
  • The informal construction sector provides terribly low-paid work in India; particularly so for women who make about half of what men make.
  • It is an industry in flux, mostly due to India’s current economic downturn/crisis, as well as factors such as mechanization and the Modi administration’s demonetization of the Indian currency.

Armed with my observations in Mumbai, I left for Kerala with a huge amount of curiosity. When I stepped out of the airport in Kochi, I immediately felt like I had entered a different world. I noticed that it was more quiet and clean and that traffic was not nearly as bad. My immediate impressions were only reinforced as I stayed longer in Kerala. I felt that way about the construction sites that I visited and the construction workers that I observed in Kerala as well.

chantal

Chantal (4th from left) with Building Bridges Delegates, Archana staff and women construction workers in Kerala in November 2019

When I think of my time with the US and Canadian Delegation of Tradeswomen, and the Keralite Tradeswomen trained by Archana Women’s Center in Ettumanoor, words such as hopefulness, buoyancy, and light come to mind. Certainly I have seen some hope in my fieldwork in Mumbai (mostly in the ways the women talk about their hopes for their children) — but more commonly I have seen difficulty, dislocation and limitations. As one NGO staff told me, “They [women construction workers, in particular naka laborers] work to live. Not to enjoy.”

In speaking to staff at Archana, I came to know that their model is holistic. They have programs to build women’s self-confidence and self-esteem, and then their hard construction skills in plumbing, masonry and electrical work. While there are still numerous challenges for their trainees (getting work after training being one of the biggest), when I went to worksites, there was a palpable sense of purpose and pride. The women were doing hard, valuable, and valued work.

Of course, this is true in Mumbai too, but their jobs are very different (mostly cleaning worksites, or carrying extremely heavy loads of water, cement mixture or gravel from point A to point B on worksites) and the conditions are also very different. Of the women I have spoken to in Mumbai, none of them (not a single one!) wants her children to also go into construction work when they grow up. That speaks volumes. I am haunted by stories I have been told of fatalities on worksites. For example, at a naka in Navi Mumbai (New Mumbai), a construction worker told me that a boy who lived on a construction site in Navi Mumbai got grievously injured. The contractor would not pay for medical treatment and his parents could not pay. He was turned away from the hospital and he died. When I was at another construction site in Mumbai, I saw a young girl with a bad injury on her eye. She had fallen on a firecracker (It was holiday season here, and firecrackers are everywhere) but her parents who worked on the site could not afford medical care for her. And construction sites are not just hazardous for children. All the research done on health of women construction workers (the only area of Human Security of this population that has been researched up until now) reveals a long list of problems, such as chronic UTIs, severe back problems, silicosis, higher rates of infant and maternal mortality, rampant harassment, and on and on. The health of men laborers, too, is negatively impacted. Of course, the women with whom I have spoken do not want their children working in such conditions when they grow up!

So why is Kerala such a different world than the rest of India? Theories abound, and the truth is probably some combination of all of them. The top contenders:

  • Kerala has focused on “human development” – not just on “economic development” – so no matter what poverty there is, systems of governance have created strong education and health programs. Literacy rates, for example, are the highest in India and maternal and infant mortality rates the lowest.
  • There is a rich and long tradition of matrilineal kinship in Kerala, so women and girls are generally treated more equitably.
  • There’s been non-coercive encouragement of family planning which has yielded lower birth rates.
  • The communist party was strong in the past and there is still a real focus on the social progressivism in Kerala.

Given all this, it is no surprise that there is a training program for women to develop construction skills in Kerala, and that there is at least some support for this program amongst local government officials. We met a number of local politicians and village panchayat leaders when they came to Archana Women’s Center and to worksites.

I still have far to go in my research, so I have no conclusions to draw, nor policy recommendations yet. However, my initial thought is that other states in India would do very well to emulate Kerala. I’m not the only one who thinks this. The term “The Kerala Model” exists. As far as I have been able to find out, there are no construction training programs for women in all of Maharashtra. And only a handful in all of India. And when I go to construction sites and nakas in Mumbai, I never feel the same buoyancy in the women as I did in Kerala. My hope is that someday one of these times when I travel to Kerala from Mumbai again, I’ll breathe a sigh of relief to see that these two worlds in the same country are beginning to look more and more similar.

About susanmoir2015

Researcher, feminist, labor activist.
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2 Responses to A Researcher’s View: Life is Better in Kerala for India’s Women Construction Workers

  1. tillkan says:

    Interesting. I hope whatever progress being made in Kerala can continue under the regime that gets worse and worse.

    Like

  2. Yes. It is a glimmer of hope in a country where nationalism and bigotry are on the rise. Power to the resistance to hindutva.

    Like

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