Construction Workers in Delhi are being Denied COVID-19 Relief. Here's Why.

Pandemic relief has been announced for construction workers but they are not getting it because they are not being registered. Read on for more in this Indian Policy Collective original. 

In accordance with directions issued by the Union Ministry of Labour and Employment, state governments have announced pandemic relief of ex gratia cash payments for building and other construction workers. The Delhi government has announced a sum of Rs. 5000 for the same. However, this disbursal is greatly hampered by the gross under registration and non-registration of construction and other workers in Delhi. There is good reason to believe that this is the case in other states as well.

- The Building and Other Construction Workers Act, 1996 and The Building and Other Construction Workers’ Welfare Cess Act, 1996 created an architecture for a social welfare net for building and other construction workers in the informal industry, so that they may get the benefit of not only minimum wages, but also other legal safeguards such as maternity leave. In addition, a cess was chargeable on all construction activities to ensure a dedicated fund for the welfare of workers registered under the Act. Several schemes are run using this cess, including for health, education, accident claims, pension for workers. 

- However, the implementation of the Act was woeful, except for the collection of cess. In 2018, the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India in National Campaign Committee for Central Legislation on Construction Labour (NCC-CL) v. Union of India, (2018) 5 SCC 607 came down heavily on the central and state governments. According to admitted figures, only half of the workers in the country had been registered, and there were huge disparities between states when it came to registration. The amount of money spent on worker welfare was a paltry amount in comparison to the amount collected. The Government was asked by the Supreme Court to remedy this by registering workers through spreading awareness, and conducting registration drives at labour camps, etc.

- As of 31.3.2017, in Delhi, as per the Parliamentary Standing Committee Report, the amount of cess collected for Delhi was Rs. 1930 crores and the amount spent was only Rs. 174.71 crores. The total amount collected in the country was Rs. 32,632.96 crores and the amount spent was Rs. 7516.52 crores. In contrast, according to one report, only Rs. 16.18 crores has been spent on the Direct Benefit Transfers (DBTs) for pandemic relief. This is an abysmally low amount given the estimated numbers for building and other construction workers that need financial assistance at the moment.

- As stated earlier, severe under registration has crippled the government’s financial assistance during the COVID-19 pandemic. In Delhi, approximately 40,000 workers have admittedly been given Rs. 5000 each as pandemic relief. The number is a stark contrast to the number registered in 2015 – approximately 3 lakhs.

- Under registration happens because the onus of registration has been put on the workers, rather than employers and the competent authority. Workers are required to renew their registration every year, using a cumbersome 12 page form, even though the Act envisions that workers should continue being registered until they stop being construction workers or reach the age of 60. To make matters worse, those who do not pay the Rs. 20 annual fee are left off the rolls, when the fee of Rs. 20 could easily instead be deducted from the monies payable to them under the welfare scheme.

- Employers are equally to blame for under registration. They have been able to evade meeting their legal commitments to workers, such as minimum wage, by not ensuring that workers on their sites are registered. The sub-contracting of labour does not allow them to evade this responsibility in law, but it has resulted in them evading it in practice. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, employers have been issued a guidance under the Disaster Management Act to ensure that payments to their workers are not stopped. They can easily evade following this guideline because of the gross under registration.

- An informal survey of migrant camps has found that most workers are not registered and have not received the benefit of the pandemic relief through the cess.

- In such emergencies, over-inclusion of relief is more important than severe under inclusion of relief.

- A Public Interest Petition was moved in the Delhi High Court by a social worker Sunil Kumar Aledia, filed through Cicero Chambers, highlighting the heightened importance of registering all building and construction workers in the current scenario. 

- Possible orders sought are active registration of workers currently stranded at construction sites, labour colonies and shelter homes; extending benefits to those registered in the last two years, whose renewal has not been conducted due to non-payment of renewal fees. The petition also seeks auditing employer returns to ensure registration of all workers and ensuring that all workers allowed on construction sites open during the lockdown are registered, including on government construction sites.

- The High Court of Delhi has issued notice and sought a report from the Delhi Government by 8th May, 2020.

- Read this petition below for more information:

UPDATE on May 12. Here's what's happening now:

- The reply to the High Court by the Board set up under the Act sought to evade all responsibility. In the reply, the responsibility to register as construction worker was put firmly on the workers, who, they illegally stated, must continue to renew their registration every year, though this is not the scheme of the Act, as mentioned above. The Board also insisted on the physical verification of each worker, which is not possible during the lockdown. It refused to start online registration, calling it a “novel and unknown” procedure. Further, the Board implicitly admitted that it has not been enforcing the employers’ responsibility to register all construction workers, by stating that it has issued a circular “via WhatsApp” on 5th May, 2020, asking all employers to submit lists of their workers. On 8th May, 2020, the High Court sought the replies of the Central Government and set the argument for hearing on 20th May, 2020. - As per news reports, the Delhi government has decided to allot Rs 5000 to every registered construction worker this month, as it did last month. They have also stated that they will start a registration drive from the 15th of May for 10 days where online registrations can be submitted for renewal as well as for first-time applicants. Further to their applications they will be given slots for physical verification. - While this is somewhat welcome it is far from what the petition demands. The petition has clearly stated that the Act does not require annual renewal of registration, so all those registered should automatically be eligible for the welfare benefit of Rs 5000. The process of new registrations, at least during the lockdown should be simplified and based on self-certification – doing away with the requirement of physical verification. The process of physical verification is onerous, especially with restricted access to public transport, and time-consuming such that precious time will be wasted before those in extreme need can access the cash they desperately need. As with other benefits, this is not the time to be a stickler for targeting but to err on the side of caution and ensure that out of work workers are not deprived of basic necessities. 

This is a story by the Indian Policy Collective team. 

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