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Odisha women work as ‘skilled workers’ against all odds

Tuesday, 12 July 2016 | RAKHI GHOSH | in Bhubaneswar

Among other women workers in her slum, she gets more respect and importance in decision making both at home and work front. Meet Radharani who has created her own identity as a mason in the city here and has broken the gender norm.

Six years back when she was painting the outside wall of State Guest House building, by standing on bamboo ladder, with her other team members, the engineer asked her to come down and discuss. When she came and opened her head scarf, he was surprised.

Being a woman how she is able to do painting work! Remembering that moment, 43-year-old Radharani says smilingly, “My husband taught me this skill and now I am doing better than him and getting more assignment.”

She has been in the profession for last 20 years and now things have changed and people accepted her as a paint mason. Earlier, it was not so easy, sometimes they did not trust on a woman to assign work. “Now I get regular assignments over phone. I do not have to run after contractors,” she said Radharani while giving instructions to her team workers about mixing of paints.

Sabita Sathua is working as a marble mason. But, she faces trouble with other male marble masons from Odisha and neighbouring States like Bihar and West Bengal. “They do not accept a woman as marble mason. It is in their mind that women are only meant to work as labourer, but I proved them wrong by doing better work,” says 45-year-old Sabita, confidently, who has been in this field for last 15 years. Initially she worked as a labourer in construction sites when her husband abandoned her and their son. But later, she took it up as a challenge and learned this art from some male masons. “I wanted to work as a marble mason to get better wages to educate my child and lead a better life,” says Sabita. Today she has her own team and is getting enough assignments. “Some people still have the mindset to pay less while dealing with a woman mason,” laments Sabita.

The general view of a construction site gives the idea that a majority of women workers are working as labourers. They do not get a chance to work as mason. Many social factors like upbringing, costume and other environment do not allow them to break the gender stereotypes in the society. Besides, lack of training institutes for women and giving equal opportunity to women are major handicaps. Also these women workers are not being paid equally despite the Constitutional mandate of equal wages to equal work.

Many women express they accept the reality of wage discrimination. “The contractor pays better wages to men, while we get less. They think that we cannot do hard work like men. We only support them, so we get less wages,” says Anima Behera, a construction worker. Adding to her T Sinu, a contractor who negotiates with the workers at Labour market says, “Equal wages is in paper only. If women will demand they cannot get work. They only work as a helper at construction sites. They are not skilled to get better wages.”

Among other parts of the State, villagers of Tangi block in Khurdha district are migrating to Chhattisgarh, Bihar, Hyderabad, Kerala, Mumbai and Chennai, including Bhubaneswar, to work at construction sites, for more than a decade. Fishing was their hereditary profession and their forefathers depended on it for their livelihood. But after decline in fish production in Chilika and the Government imposed various laws, the fishermen families migrated to work as construction workers. Every year, more than 5,000 people (both men and women) migrate to work at construction sites. Besides migrating to neighbouring States, many women of Tangi block of Khurdha district come to work in construction sites in capital city of Bhubaneswar. They are daily commuters and gather at Labour nakas (market) of the city from where the contractors take them to work sites. They do not have any bargaining strength and hence agree to the defined rate by the contractors. Commuting daily takes a heavy toll in terms of hours of work as they have to finish their primary household tasks before coming to and after returning from the work,” says Sumati Behera, a daily wage worker. Ironically, these workers are not aware of their rights as workers.

Under the Building and other Construction Workers Welfare Act 1996, implemented in Odisha, as many as 20 social security provisions are provided to construction workers.  To include construction workers and their families in these schemes, the State Labour Department has started to register their names. The social security schemes include accidental, health, education, housing, pension, higher education, daughter’s marriage, pregnancy, purchase of cycle and instrument etc. According to department sources, nearly 14, 24, 531 construction workers have been registered in this process till the end of March 31, 2016. But the department has no data on women workers who have registered. “We have recently started doing on-line process and within 6 months we will have a disaggregated figure on the number of women registered. But yes, their number will be lower than men,” admits Odisha Building and other Construction Workers Welfare Board chairperson Subhas Singh.

A visit to Bolangir, Khurdha, Bhubaneswar and discussion with women construction workers reveals there are hundreds of migrant construction workers still left out from the registration process. “We are daily wage workers; so taking leave from work and spending the whole day at Labour office is quite impossible for a woman who has other responsibilities at home,” says Sukanti Behera. Also these women construction workers are not much literate to fill up the form. If they take help of middlemen or any trade union, sometimes they ask for huge bribe. “We have received such complaints and now are working on it. To enroll construction workers, especially women workers from on-site workplace, we have decided to strengthen our mechanism and expand our manpower,” informs Singh.

In another move Odisha State Social Security Board is planning to issue Unorganized Workers Identification Number (UWIN) cards soon to the workers. On the other hand, over the last few years, 10 non-profit organisations with the support of Tata Trust are issuing identity cards and Hazira diary to migrant workers to reduce wage related disputes and promote safe worker practice. “Earlier the migrant workers, who used to work in construction sites, were harassed for wage related issues. Sometimes they do not get wages for months, which was a major concern for them. This card gives them confidence, strength and keep a detail information about their work,” says Malaya Mishra, labour development officer, Shramik Sahayog Centre, Adhikar, an NGO working for the rights of the migrant workers.

On being asked about these issues, State Labour Commissioner Roopa Mishra says, “Whenever such issues come to our notice, we take this into consideration. Besides for the upgradation of skills of both men and women workers, the State Government has signed an MoU with six RPL (Recognition of Prior Learning) training partners. Till date, 47,000 construction workers have been imparted with different skills which are equivalent to any diploma certificate.  We are also planning to provide Rs 200 as training fees so that the daily wage workers can attend the training programme without any hassle.”

(This article is a part of GAATW Media Fellowship -2016 on women migrant worker)



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