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The Driving Force

Human Resources, Comment

The magnitude of the problem
Estimated Employment – It is estimated that approximately 35 million or 3.5 crore people were employed in this sector, at of end of 2008. Of this, as much as 73% are unskilled, 27% skilled including engineers and other technical staff.
Estimated Shortage – The shortage skilled and semi-skilled laborers is threatening to slow the construction of projects that are key to the nation’s economic growth. Although no formal figures are available, informal inputs from the industry estimate shortage of labour at approximately 30%, while the magnitude is supposedly higher at close to 60% in senior level manpower.
Future projections – Estimates also suggest that if the industry has to grow at the healthy rate it has achieved in past, it requires adding about 15% of the workforce every year. With a conservative 10% growth of workforce every year, India would roughly need 50 million people by 2012. Going by the same assumptions, we would need to add on an average 4 million of skilled and unskilled workers every year.
There is a whole wide range of unskilled, semi skilled and skilled workers catering to this sector, whose issues as well as needs and aspirations are different. It only makes sense to first understand these, which can safely be assumed as reasons for increasing labour shortage, before coming up with effective solutions.

The unskilled worker’s universe
Migration has been a way of life for labourers who seek work across cities finding it difficult to get absorbed within their localities. For this reason, their children cannot attend a school, nor can they have a regular address or a ration card and are thus deprived from the benefits of public distribution system.
Most Exploited – Normally construction workers are employed through contractors. Their lack of education and skill makes their choice very limited and hence prone to exploitation by the contractors for their benefits.
Poor living conditions – A majority of construction labourers live in sheds made of tin sheets, while minority are blessed with rubber sheet shed and huts. With negligible civic amenities available, their surroundings are totally unhygienic. No proper facilities for drainage, toilet, water, electricity or local medical facilities, hospital, school and fair price shops exist.

Dangerous accident prone work – India has the world’s highest accident rate among construction workers, according to a recent study by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) showing that 165 out of every 1,000 workers are injured on the job. An example of why this may be so, can be judged by another survey finding that states 55.4% of construction companies did not make provision of ‘eye wear for cutting iron rod to their workers. Inspite of such conditions, these workers have no social security or benefits in terms of welfare measures and provisions such as pension or insurance schemes, maternity leave, accident and death claims, concession loans and financial aid for children’s education and medical needs. Proper training and safety measures can literally save lives but is often overlooked as deadlines and financial constraints get in the way.
Many laws but no implementation in 13 years – On the surface there are many laws to protect the interests of the workers, however ground realities are quite different from the legislations, which are only good on paper.
After a decade of protests, the workers got reprieve in two acts enacted in 1996, 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. None of these is yet a reality due to ineffective enforcement mechanism and lack of worker awareness about their rights and liabilities of employers under relevant statutes.

In Jan 2009, the Supreme Court scoffed at the governments’ practice of adorning the statute books with ‘beautiful laws’ but leaving them dead. The apex court agreed that in 13 years, the government had done precious little for the welfare of the workers.
Construction Worker’s Federation of India (CWFI) has also been lobbying with the Government and placed their memorandum, before Labour Minister & Overseas Minister in September 2008. A partial relief came by way of Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) asking all construction companies to provide all civic amenities, including housing, drinking water and healthcare to workers. However, the impact of such an order remains to be seen.

The basics
While basic facilities and reasonable living conditions would make majority of workers happy, there are many who aspire for more.
Training to move up on occupational scale – Feedback from various training programmes show that unskilled workers are interested in moving up the value chain by learning specific skills and taking up specialties such as masonry, carpentry and bar-bending.
Safety standards to protect their interests – Safety in construction is frequently pushed to the bottom rung of priorities by the builders, contractors and engineers. Enforcement of the above laws will be critical to stop these malpractices at the cost of worker’s lives.
Till such time, the industry could take requisite measures starting with a Construction Safety Manual, being made a part of decision-making criteria to be submitted along with standard tender document strictly enforced by the supervising agency.
And best in class exists to guide way. L&T ECC has a safety record that is among the best when compared to global construction companies. According to L&T management, the appointment of safety officers and audit of safety in equipment and work place practices plus a clearly enunciated checklist of internal procedures have helped the company maintain the lowest accident rates in the industry.


Education and Training
Improved life, opportunities and better money for the workers- Benefits of training would be contested by few. Education would make labourers more aware of their rights and contractors would no longer be able to exploit them. Job avenues would increase with an increase in their employability. In monitory terms, estimates suggest that trained people get 25-50 per cent more wages compared to those who are unskilled.
And there are role models like ’Gangaben’ who was recently awarded the first Vishvakarma Award namely ‘Expert in Masonry Works’ award by Construction Industry Development Council (CIDC). Gangaben is a master in the male dominated world of masonary, who sharpened her skills at Karmika School for Construction Workers (in association with CIDC), which not only increased her income but equipped her to manage a team engaged in similar work and also train others in the school.
More efficient hands for the construction industry – The construction sector would be able to increase its efficiency and reduce costs with efficient and skilled manpower. Take for example a mall in Mumbai which got delayed for six months due to adequate numbers of qualified labor workers. Lack of experienced workers meant that a lot of work had to be redone. Properly trained workers would contribute enormously in avoiding unnecessary costs and delays in execution.

Current role of training and certification
A majority of construction workers are either illiterate or have little schooling; as a result workers are typically trained on the job. Most unskilled workers are so raw that not only do they need to be taught how to use a ruler, lay bricks, paint walls and mix cement, but also how to use an elevator and even a toilet.
There is no institutional framework to impart training at the worker’s level, barring a few initiatives by Government bodies, industry associations and construction companies. The government-run Industrial Training Institutes (ITI) along with National Academy of Construction (NAC) and the Construction Industry Development Council (CIDC) collectively train & contribute only about 5 lakh quasi-skilled shop-floor workers into the national pool each year – which is only 13% of 4 million of average supply required every year as per the projections.

Industry associations and construction companies are taking small but unique steps to try and bridge the skill gap. In Sept 2008, Confederation of Indian Industries (CII) through private-private partnership set up its first National Centre of Excellence for Skill Development in Chhindwara district, Madhya Pradesh. Trainers arranged from member companies such as Ambuja Cement, JCB, L&T and Punj Lloyd are to impart training in skills like masonry, bar bending, welding, excavator operators and fitters.

L&T trains approximately 300 workers every year through its Skills Training Institute. Other large real estate and construction companies like DLF, HCC, Gammon India and Nagarjuna also invest considerably in training their construction workers. Ingersoll-Rand (India) (part of Volvo) has launched India’s first road institute, Rasta, with the objective of bridging the gap between technology and application by end users. A private initiative by the name Pipal Tree Ventures Pvt. Ltd, has been started in Hyderabad to equip rural youth to be more industry-ready.

More coordinated efforts required
While efforts are being made, they are being carried out in isolation resulting in sub-optimal results. There is need to expand the training and skill certification programmes, both in terms of content as well as geographical reach. What is required is a coordinated effort from all stakeholders including Government, industry association, educational institutes and companies to come together and build strategies, framework and identify effective and scalable solutions to bridge the demand-supply gap for construction manpower.

The author can be contacted at ssandhir@rics.org

 

 

The Driving Force

Uplifting the construction workforce will be a win-win situation for the industry and the workers, writes Sachin Sandhir, MD & country head, RICS India

Now that the construction industry is slowly bouncing back, it won’t be long before we once again face longstanding issues of manpower shortage across the construction value chain. All of us are fairly aware and must fully recognise the impact it can have on the overall implementation of the project and costs.
It is also understood that a number of initiatives have been planned or taken at individual company level to address the shortage of manpower, armed with a host of measures including salary raises, handsome perks, better lifestyle comforts to woo people back from overseas and last but not the least, training initiatives in various forms and scales in the hope of meeting our project needs, if not with the objective of making a difference to the industry at large.

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