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.

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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 (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.

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“Travel Light.  Live Light.  Be the Light. Spread Light.”

Amanda Kay Johnson, 3rd Year Carpenter Apprentice, Local 157 Carpenters Union NYC

It seemed that everywhere I went in India that the theme of light followed me around.  (I later learned from my time here that light and the concept of “light” is very important and is considered a sign of blessing here.)  There were lights on the entryway and stairs leading up to our official welcoming ceremony at Archana Women’s Centre.  There were giant, ornate oil lamps glittering with light at our formal inauguration ceremonies, a practice that is common within the local culture.  I saw quotes about light and a shirt centered around it as well.

And then, there were the actual fireworks and a bonfire to celebrate friendships forged among the women of Kerala at one woman’s bachelorette party.  But, where I truly saw light shining the brightest is in the life of Thresiamma Mathew.

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Ms. Thresiamma Mathew (in green) and the women of Archana Women’s Centre welcome Building Bridges founder, Susan Moir, on her first visit in 2016.

Ms. Mathew founded Archana in 1989 after working with men and later women on the Total Sanitation Programme, a government project to construct toilets (bathrooms) for local communities.  While on the project she observed that the women only had the role of mason helpers rather than masons.  As such, they were paid a meager 35 rupees rather than sharing equally in the 450 rupees given to the mason and his helper.  While investigating further, Thresiamma learned that women were not seen as capable to be masons by societal standards.  This motivated her to take up the fight for women’s equality and spurn the notion that women were incapable.  Eventually, she devised a successful plan of pairing one male mason with a female to work equally, where both helped each other build the toilets, and thus the community saw neither as the “helper.” Over time, the women became accepted by the community while simultaneously gaining a skilled trade alongside male allies building over 15,000 toilets in the Thrissur district alone.


Arcana Women’s Centre’s 7000 sq. ft. main building was built by women in 2006.

From this humble beginning in the fight for social justice, a holistic empowerment and skills training program has evolved including carpentry, masonry, electrical, plumbing, and ferro-cement technology within the skilled trades.  The women of Archana have gone on to build multiple residences (now housing renters), a woodworking and furniture workshop, a waterfront bamboo pole home, lightweight cement water tanks, and various cement block walls among the many projects they’ve been involved with.  Additionally, there are non-construction classes such as financial literacy courses, workshops on life skills, paper crafts, beautician courses, and taxi driving classes for the women.  Thresiamma and her center are also highly involved within the surrounding local communities with their Community Action Groups which not only build solidarity among women but also inclusivity, entrepreneurship, and self-reliance.  As of our visit, more than 5,000 women have come through Archana Women’s Centre with 350 completing training in carpentry alone.

On a more personal level, I wish to thank Thresiamma, all of the staff of Archana, and the men and women working on the various construction sites for being generous with their time.  Having met Ms. Mathew and some of the original delegation at the 2017 Women Build Nations Conference in Chicago and committing to lead a team back to India, I can honestly say that this trip was simply spectacular!  I am grateful to have gained another international sisterhood and to have had the powerful opportunity to learn different construction techniques and skills from my fellow tradeswomen in Kerala.  After two years of dedicated, transnational planning with the three other co-leaders and many delegates, I was ecstatic that the trip went so smoothly and accomplished the goals of Tradeswomen Building Bridges!  May the light continue to shine brightly in my life, in Thresiamma’s life, and in the lives of our trade sisters in India as we all endeavor to propel the international tradeswomen’s movement forward and into the spotlight.




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Meeting with the Construction Union Leadership of Kerala



L-R: New York Carpenter Amanda Kay Johnson; BWI South Asia Projects Director Rajeev Sharma; Portland, OR Carpenter and Coordinator at the Pacific Northwest Carpenters Institute Amber McCoy; High Court of Kerala Justice Abdul Rahim; San Francisco Electrician and alumna of the 2017 Building Bridges Delegation Noreen Buckley

After leaving Archana Women’s Centre, the Building Bridges Delegation returned to the city of Kochi (കേരളം) for two days of meetings with the leadership and members of the the Kerala Kettida Nirmana Thozhilali Congress (KKNTC). KKNTC is the largest construction workers union in Kerala. The visit was co-hosted by the Building and Wood Workers’ International (BWI). The BWI is “the Global Union Federation grouping free and democratic unions with members in the Building, Building Materials, Wood, Forestry and Allied sectors.

Meeting the KKNTC and BWI members and leaders

Amber McCoy, Oregon Carpenter and Rep at Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters

The Building Bridges Delegation was joined in Kochi by BWI leadership in India, Rajeev Sharma and Prerna Prasad. Rajeev was instrumental in organizing our Kochi schedule. Meeting Rajeev and Prerna was very exciting for Amanda Kay Johnson and myself as they both know and have worked closely with our friends, Jane, Mheanne, and Bench who are affiliated with BWI in the Philippines.

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Delegation welcomed to BWI headquarters in Kochi, Kerala

Our expanded group met and exchanged with women and a few men that are members of Kerala Kettida Nirmana Thozhilali Congress (KKNTC) at a local office and out in the field. KKNTC also graciously welcomed us to their 46th Annual General Council Meeting. Communication was aided by Tony who, lucky for us, stepped up at the last minute to translate for us to help out a friend.

Delegates visited KKNTC women masons, carpenters and helpers on four jobsites

KKNTC is affiliated with the Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC) at the national level and Building and Wood Workers International (BWI) at the global level. Current membership of KKNTC is 69,716 (Men – 42,738 and Women – 26,978).  Women are active in Union leadership, and at the district level. Women are approximately 40% of the leadership.

At the General Council Meeting we were received by over 2,500 Union leaders. ef94fd40-fb74-4a48-81e9-57b87acb06a8

We exchanged honorary gifts and Amanda Kay Johnson did an amazing job of addressing the group on the behalf of the Building Bridges Delegation. Click here to view Amanda’s speech.amanda speech

As a whole I was excited to see how large Union meetings the world over are very similar and I was honored to be invited to be a part of their Annual meeting.

The visit of the 2019 North American Building Bridges Delegation received media coverage in the press and on television across Kerala. Following up on the first Building Bridges Delegation in 2017, we continued the work to build the international network of women working in the construction trades , a network to support women across the globe entering the skilled trades and to promote the goal that ALL women working in construction have the right to decent pay and safe working conditions. 


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Goodbye to Archana Women’s Centre…for now

On Friday, November 8, the tradeswomen of North America and the women of Archana said goodbye after a week of discussions, site visits, media events, meetings with government and academic dignitaries and getting to know each other. More on the activities and final day below but first a personal story from Electrician Denise Duavin.

Two stories: Two Women Masons

By Denise Dauvin, Industrial Electrician, British Columbia

I heard something today that touched my heart.

We were having a roundtable meeting about the challenges women face in non-traditional trades. One of the women, who’s name is Money, had just traveled 4 hours to come to the meeting. She told us her story. She had grown up in the very poorest of families and her family put her out to work cleaning by age 5. She had no schooling, she could not read or write. She was married off at a very young age and had two children. It was then that her husband abandoned the family. She was desperate when she met Thresiamma Mathew, founder of Archana Women’s Centre. Money was in one of the first groups of women who were trained at the Centre to become Masons.


Archana graduate and 23-year Mason, Money

She not only learned to be a Mason, but learned how to read and write. She continued learning and first got a scooter license and then a car license. She has gone on to raise her children and has been self-employed as a Mason for over 23 years. 

This echoed to me some events in my life. I was 17 when I got pregnant and had two children. I ended up a single mother after a very terrible marriage. I felt powerless, and needed a way to earn money and take care of my children. It was then that I entered the trades, where you get paid as you learn. Trades was the answer for both Money and I enabling us to raise our children and become strong, skilled trades people. We are lucky in North America to have government programs that help single parents to improve their education. Thank goodness the women of Kerala, India have the Archana Women’s Centre.

Final goodbyes


A final ceremony




The visit was big news!

newsClick here to see the women of Archana and the Building Bridges delegates meeting together and sharing tools at the Centre in a video news report in the Malayalam language. At 1.03 in the broadcast, Noreen Buckley, San Francisco Electrician explains the purpose of the North American tradeswomen’s trip to Kerala.

On to Kochin and a weekend with the members and leaders of KKNTC, the local affiliate of Builders and Woodworkers International (BWI)



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Visiting Archana Electricians and Plumbers at Work

By Katy Rhodes, Electrician, British Columbia

f301975a-72c9-4c29-a381-55d43cdf5b17In Kerala, the Archana Women’s Centre puts women through a 3 month program but often has trouble recruiting women because of their traditional views of women’s work. You can imagine that if the women themselves need convincing, the community does as well. Thresiamma Mathews (founder of the Archana Women’s Centre) not only invests a lot of time preparing women to enter the training program, but has also negotiated contracts with government in order to establish a work report with these women in the community. I was in awe with her holistic approach.

IMG_7913We were able to visit the plumbers and the electricians during their workday, but we spent the majority of our time with the plumbers and were able to see their water collection filtration system from start to finish. Firstly, the concrete barrel was built at the Archana Women’s Centre. When the materials are brought to site they are ready to be installed. They then build a roof water collection system with PVC gutters and pipe the water into the barrel that is then filled with aggregate and charcoal layers with a tile to displace water so that it doesn’t shift the rocks during heavy rain. From there, the clear water enters the well. These communities get to see women doing this work and these women get paid very well for their work while they practice what they’ve learned in school. The pride that they show in their work is a universal feeling I’ve seen across trades and sectors in North America as well.

IMG_7679Although our visit with the electricians was short, I really loved that they were working at a school with young children. Normalizing women doing this work for children at that young age will influence their views of what is women’s work and help mold the culture of trades for future generations- a task that we have been working hard on in North America as well.

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A monument to a monumental event: Women of Archana and Women of North America come together for gender and economic equality in the trades

By Noreen Buckley, Electrician, San Francisco


Jayasree P. K. designed and built this symbol of women’s power to honor the great work that was achieved by the Building Bridges Delegation and Archana Women Center this past week.

This statue marks the beginning of our International Partnership in global visibility and support of all Tradeswomen.  From here we will continue holding each other up, strengthening our voices and moving gender equality forward!

Veronica, a mason from CA, helped Jayasree complete the finishing touches on the statue.




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2019 Delegation Focus on Safety


Forewomen in India! (From left to right – electrician, plumber, plumber, carpenter, mason, mason)

On Wednesday, the North American Tradeswomen and the Women of Archana discussed safety on the job in construction. Below is a summary of that discussion. In an effort to keep the issue at the top of our joint international agenda, we have added FOCUS ON SAFETY to the front page menus on the Building Bridges webpage. We can refer back to this first discussion and add and share ideas on that menu page.

In North America, we often complain about lapses in safety on construction sites–

  • a worker up high has not been giving a harness
  • a cloud of concrete dust envelopes a crew without respiratory protection
  • workers are told to lift excessive weight when a hand truck could have moved it faster and without risk of back injury

This is nothing like we see in India where most workers are totally unprotected and injury and death on construction sites happen every day.

Archana Women’s Centre wants to be a leader in changing this. They have asked Tradeswomen Building Bridges to assist them in this goal. The first discussion happened on November 7 and here are the notes from that meeting.

Safety Conversation with AWC Heads of Trades

  • After our site visits – what machines do the North American Delegation believe AWC could use to make their jobs easier.
  • If AWC sees a tool, machine or process and they want to learn more – take a picture/video and send to us.  We will virtually provide accurate info
  • Teach/share ergonomics and proper safety positions to AWC workers.  Use pictures posted on job sites of how to work safely and with proper ppe (as it make sense in Indian climate) (knee pads for masons and plumbers, gloves for masons, nose plugs for carpenters, safety glass for everyone.

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  • Work with engineers to build job so workers will be safe as they build.
  • Is Fall protection a thing in India?
  • Create a “Train the trainers” program at AWC
  • AWC wants to be a model of safety so other regions and programs follow them
  • Collect data on injuries to help prove case of need for safety.

What will happen next?

How can we continue to support the women of Archana?

Can we find health and safety experts in North America who will assist this project?

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There is more than one way to move construction materials

The women of Building Bridges shared the following photos that may be of particular interest to Operating Engineers.




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The Work of the AWC Masons

By Jenna Lipinski, Canadian Bricklayer

On Nov, 4 2019, a group of us visited a Mason Jobsite in Kottayam, Kerala. Members of our group included myself, Jenna Lipinski (Bricklayer, Canada), Jan Jenson (Retired Ironworker/Photo Journalist, US) and Chantal Krcmar (PhD Candidate/Researcher, Mumbai).


Jenna, Jan and Chantal (first row right) meet with Archana Masons and a family that lost their home in last year’s floods.

We arrived at the jobsite and were greeted by Amala who is a Social Worker for The Archana Women’s Center and Shiny who runs the CAG Program (Community Action Group). Our visit started with introductions to the women working on site. Rhadika is the Chief Mason for the Archana Women’s Center (28 Years in trade). Working with her was Ambily, Ancy and Smitha. They were rebuilding a house that was destroyed by the devastating floods of 2018. The home owners were still living on the property in a temporary shelter. This new house was built on a raised solid foundation to protect it from future flood damage.



Rhadika (right) is the Chief Mason for the AWC

They showed us the different tools and demonstrated how they all work the blocks they used for the walls (each one weighs 23kg) and let me get in there and lay some blacks with them.

The whole crew on site loaded some blocks into the unit to assist in making their day perhaps just a little easier. The Workers wore hardhats and flip flops. Some had gloves to wear. In the heat it’s not pleasant for them to have workboots on. As the women took lunch we had a chance to sit and have a discussion with Amala and Shiny about the role CAG has in their outreach work with women: empowering them and supporting them to take the first step in starting a job in the Trades and joining the Archana Team. We were enlightened on the different barriers and obstacles the women in India have to overcome in this Industry. We learned the history, where the program currently stands and their hopes for the future.


Jenna helps Rhadika lay concrete blocks

Kerala is a leader in this movement and some areas of India are very far behind in viewing the trades as an acceptable career choice for women. No matter the struggle, they are devoted to continue raising awareness and empowering women. After our discussion we were joined by a government official who was responsible for the funding that was given to this family to rebuild their home. We got everyone together to snap a few photos and share with the women just how incredible and inspiring they are to us. This was a truly an inspirational day and I will continue to share the stories of these women and support the future endeavours of the Masons and the Archana Women’s Center.

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Hospitality Beyond Compare

By Antoinette “Ant” Yap, Millwright from Vancouver, British Columbia

I honestly had no idea what I was in for when starting this trip. In preparation for my trip I did my research, spoke to as many friends as possible who touched or came from this far away land to better prepare myself for this experience. What I did not know was that this experience would put me to shame.
The people of India and in my experience the people of Kerala’s hospitality is beyond compare. From day 1 we have been welcomed in treatment only suited for royals and heads of state, fed to the point of fear that I am being fattened up for a feast, and given the opportunity at a rare glimpse into the world of how women in trades in India are breaking barriers. Under the guidance of Thresiamma Mathew, the Archana Women’s Centre is providing woman an opportunity to provide for themselves and their families in trades non traditional to women. This truly resonates with me because I have experienced similar struggles as these women from across the world. I am beyond awe at these women because despite all the adversity they have to overcome, they are thriving and just as kind as the harsh world around them. The quality of work they produce without the tools or resources we have in the western world is astounding. What shocks me the most is their attitude. These women are strong and have the biggest hearts. Coming from a land where westerners can come off as cold, I thought I was more than an adequate host. Little did I know people of India treat guests as their god. It’s incredibly humbling since I am well aware these people would give their shirts off their backs.
Thank you, India, for all the love you’ve shown me so far. I have only been here for less than a few days and am overwhelmed by your hospitality. I don’t know how much I can take before I’ll explode. I truly now understand when people say India changes you. I know I will not only gain 5 dress sizes but my heart is full beyond compare.

Ant shared some of her photos of the visit so far.

Welcome and Celebration



Site Visits



Evening Fireworks


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