Building bridges: A comparative study of women working in the construction industry in India and the US
A proposal by Susan Moir, University of Massachusetts Boston
In 1995, at the Beijing Fourth World Conference on Women, two US-based tradeswomen proposed and facilitated a workshop for women working in the construction sector. The workshop was in a very small room and the organizers expected a handful of tradeswomen to show up. Over 60 women from at least eight countries, including India, Pakistan, Thailand and Papua New Guinea, came to the workshop and participated in the first-ever international discussion of work and working conditions by women in construction. The event was documented in the 2006 film Transnational Tradeswomen (Price). Many things were talked about that day. Nearly twenty years later those who participated remember one revelation as the most remarkable. Women from developed economies described systematic exclusion from good paying careers in a male-dominated industry. Women from developing economies described being relegated to the most menial, backbreaking and dangerous work within the same industry. One participant summarized the feelings in the workshop as, “In the North we are not strong enough; in the South we are not smart enough.” A question arises from this contradiction: if skilled work in the construction field is a route out of poverty for women in more privileged societies, are global industry patterns reinforcing women’s poverty in developing societies?
The largest concentration of women working in the construction industry in any country is in India. Conservative estimates are that 20% of the construction workforce is female and that 99% of those women are in the informal sector (ILO). To understand the contradictions between access and exclusion, between good jobs and bad for women in the global construction industry, one must understand the working and labor conditions of women in the Indian industry. This is the purpose of my proposed project.
This project has three specific goals:
- to study the conditions of women working in the construction industry in India through observations, interviews and document review;
- to share my extensive experience and knowledge of the working conditions of women in the US construction industry with my host institution and other academics, women’s organizations and labor unions in India;
- to establish individual and organizational relationships that will form a basis for future international exchanges and will further mutual understanding of women under varying conditions in the global construction sector.
REVIEW OF RECENT LITERATURE
As you can see from the accompanying bibliography, both academics and activists have extensively studied the subject of women working in the Indian construction industry. These studies range across many subjects and disciplines and include descriptions of the industry, conditions for workers and policy issues.
The construction industry in India has grown rapidly over the last decade and approximately 1 in 10 workers are working in the sector (Chowdhury). An estimated 44 million workers were in construction in 2009-10 (NSSO). The construction sector is the second largest employer of women in India, second only to agriculture. Many rural women migrate to urban areas to work in the informal construction sector on a seasonal basis (Akram, Chawada, Devi). Estimates of women’s participation in the construction workforce vary widely ranging from 20%-50% (CDPR, Devi, Rai, WIEGO). However all sources agree that between 90-99% of women in India who are working in construction are in the informal sector (ILO, SEWA, WIEGO). Using the most conservative of calculations, as many as 8-9 million women in India may be working in construction.
Women are primarily employed to do the heaviest and most repetitive low skilled tasks including digging, carrying materials and supplies, and clearing rubble (Devi, WIEGO). Job stresses, including sexual harassment, gender-based discrimination, maternal health risks and exposure to worksite health and safety hazards, are well documented (SEWA. Abrol, Bharara, Chawada, Dasgupta, Devi, Kakad, Lakhani, Madhok, Malenfant, Mehta , Sett, Tiwary 2011, Tiwary 2012, WIEGO). The ergonomics of construction and the health effects of heavy and repetitive work on women workers have also been described (Basu, Maiti, Sahu 2010a, Sahu 2010b, Sett). A recent study addressed work-life balance(Devi, 2014).
Construction workers in the informal sector have little access to labor rights (Baruha, Chawada, Dalmia, Mohapatra). Women workers face even greater discriminatory practices such as lesser wages, non-payment of wages, and lack of legally mandated benefits (Dalmia, Tiwary 2011, SEWA, WIEGO).
In addition to deplorable working and labor conditions, women and their children often sleep and eat in unsanitary and dangerous locations. Women who migrate to urban areas often bring their children and live within or around the active construction sites where they are working (Chawada, Dalmia). These are the stories behind the frequent news reports of women and children killed and injured on construction sites. Policies to alleviate the poor conditions of vulnerable workers in the construction sector were enacted in 1996, but many have questioned the effectiveness of implementation (Dalmia, India TV, The Times of India, Sen). Researchers and activists have called for expanded government intervention and implementation of protections at the state level (Baruha, Bharara, Devi, Kulkarni, SEWA).
Proposals for advancing the interests of individual women have focused on training (Construction Workers Federation of India, Madhok, Rai) and specifically training women in masonry skills (Barnabas 2009 and 2011, Kumar, SEWA). Proposals for more collective worker-centered solutions have included trade union organizing and worker cooperatives (Nayak, SEWA, Siddiqui). Recently Kudumbashree, the state of Kerala’s government poverty alleviation program, has launched an all-female construction company that is building an eco-friendly village for tribal families (Times of India, June 9, 2014).
PROPOSED PROJECT: BUILDING BRIDGES
Academic and activist researchers in both India and the US have extensively documented the working and living conditions of women employed in their national construction industries. The identified factors for the women in each economy are starkly polarized in many aspects, but one fact stands above all others: the few women working in the construction industry in the US can make a good living that supports themselves and their families while, for the millions of women working in India’s informal construction sector, it is not just the work that is precarious. Life itself is precarious.
The contrast is sharp, but what of the comparison? This proposed project is based on my considered belief that women in these two very different sets of circumstances have much to teach each other and can make common cause to improve the lives of women in both societies. Important and world-changing knowledge will result if cross-national dialogue on women’s varied experiences with economic and political discrimination and exclusion can occur and sustainable relationships can be built.
Some initial topics for dialogue might include the following.
- What are the tools and strategies that women and their advocates are using to make this issue prominent in each country?
- How can the various communities that are actively involved in these important issues (self-help, NGO, academic, labor) be more connected and better networked?
- What are the leverage points for change in each county as the numbers of women working in the industry are increasing during the global construction boom?
- What is the role of women in the construction unions in each country? Who are the leaders? How can women’s leadership grow?
- What is the role of the global construction industry in perpetuating the varied forms of inequality for women in the industry?
- What responsibilities do global construction firms have in efforts to increase equality for women in national economies?
- In both India and the US, how can national and regional governments be more effective enforcers of existing policies?
I am requesting a Flex Award to undertake this project. It would be difficult (but not impossible) to leave my position as the Director of the Labor Resource Center for longer than three months, but this is not my primary reason for requesting the Flex Award. I would like to be in India for two months beginning January 2016 and return again for two months within the next 18 months. The initial visit would focus on the first two project goals.
- To study the women working in construction in India, I would reach out and build relationships with as many individuals and institutions involved in this issue as possible. I will keep field notes of my observations, interviews and conversations. I will report on my activities to the US networks of tradeswomen and advocates through the PGTI Blog, the National Tradeswomen’s Task Force listserv and other social media options.
- To address my second goal of sharing the experiences of women in the US, I will be available to do formal and informal presentations, seminars and webinars. I will share the participatory action models we are employing, our successes and challenges. I have developed and taught gender-centered health and safety and leadership development training for women in the US labor movement. I hope to have opportunities to share those materials with working women.
I have begun to explore contacts for a host institution and also for guest lectures and presentations at other locations beyond my host institution. I have corresponded with and have invitations from Dr. Varsha Aayar of the Centre for Labour Studies at the Tata Institute for Social Sciences in Mumbai, Indu Agnihotri at the Centre for Women’s Developmental Studies in New Delhi, and Dr. U. V. Kiran of Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar Central University in Lucknow. I have also been invited by Krishna Nirmalya Sen, president of the American Society of Safety Engineers India Chapter, to give presentations in person and by webinar to ASSE members in India (Sen). During my first visit,, I would attend the annual South and Central Asia Fulbright Mid-year Conference.
The second visit under the Flex Award would be focused on the third project goal of establishing individual and organizational relationships for future international exchanges. Activities that I hope to undertake include:
- Fundraising between the two visits to support Indian representatives traveling to the US. The Women Build California and the Nation Conference, held in the spring of each year, would provide a forum for women from India to meet several hundred US tradeswomen and hear their stories.
- Establishing an institutional partnership between UMass Boston and an Indian university that would support ongoing collaboration and dissemination of jointly created knowledge.
- Co-developing a website or other virtual platform for ongoing dialogue and dissemination.
- Planning a visit to India by representatives from the US in 2018-19.
With this project, I hope to build the basis for sustainable relationships between researchers, workers, labor and other communities in India and the US that are working to bring equality to the women working in construction in each country. I know this is ambitious but I believe that I have the experience and commitment to open the process and bring others in. A cross-national community of interest will accomplish the vision.
MY QUALIFICATIONS TO UNDERTAKE THIS PROJECT
I have been involved in research on the construction industry and the problem of systematic exclusion of women in the US for much of my working life. I was myself excluded when, as a young mother on public assistance, I completed a construction trade preparation program with high honors but could not find work in the field. As a blue-collar worker for the next twenty years, I organized for gender equality in the transportation industry. After changing careers and going into the university to direct the health research on a construction megaproject in the 1990s, I studied the health and safety concerns of the small numbers of women who had successfully made it into construction careers in the US. Currently, the issue of women’s access to the good paying jobs in the US construction industry is my research, my cause and my passion. For the past six years, I have co-convened the Policy Group on Tradeswomen’s Issues (PGTI), a regional collaboration of construction industry stakeholders, including tradeswomen, building trades unions, contractors, government representatives, community organizations and researchers. PGTI has met bi-monthly since 2008 to work on the persistent policy failure to open up good jobs in the construction trades to women. We are making progress on the problem of exclusion in the North. I receive regular reports from the UK, Australia, Canada and elsewhere about government and industry initiatives to diversify the construction industry and open up access to women. But the industry is global and solutions to women’s equality in the industry must also be global.
I was inspired to apply for the Fulbright award by Dr. Motsomi Marobela, Fulbright scholar from Botswana. When we hosted him at the Labor Resource Center in 2013, he learned of my work and urged me to apply. Hosting was an amazing and stimulating experience, which also gave me a firsthand opportunity to learn about what it means to be a Fulbright scholar. I would be honored to be accepted.
 “4 women, child among 11 killed in wall collapse near Chennai” Times of India, July 6, 2014.
“Rescuers Search for Survivors of Building Collapse in Southern India” India News, June 29, 2014.
“Three Young Women Killed as Retaining Wall Collapses on Workers at Phuket Construction Site” Phuket Wan, June 10, 2014.
“Three dead, 12 injured in Delhi building collapse” Indo-Asian News Service, June 1, 2014.
 Aayar, V. Centre for Labour Studies, School of Management and Labour Studies, TISS, personal communication, July 25, 2014.
 Agnihotri, I., Centre for Women’s Developmental Studies, personal communication, July 22, 2014.
 Kiran, U.V., Assistant Professor, Department of Human Development and Family Studies Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar Central University, personal communication July 23, 2014.
 Sen K. N. President, American Society of Safety Engineers India Chapter, personal communication, July 21, 2014.