“Namma” Metro Project: Built on Illegal Wage Theft of Migrant Workers

The trade union started visiting the worker camps and interacting with workers in the construction sites with the objective to understand the conditions of the workers constructing this heavily foreign funded project.

workers

Bengaluru Metro Rail Corporation Limited (BMRCL), a joint venture of Government of India and the State Government of Karnataka, is the agency for building, operating and expanding the “Namma Metro” (“Our Metro” in Kannada) network. The BMRCL started constructing Bangalore Metro Rail in April 2015 and after completion of first phase it had planned for the second phase, there are 6 routes that are being constructed with huge  investments from foreign banks. Although there is no source which gives aggregated information regarding the total percentage of foreign bank investments in Bengaluru metro, some instances regarding this is as follows.

A 2013 figure says Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) was funding 45% of the budget. To implement the almost 23 km long Gottigere to Nagavara reach (Line – 6), BMRCL got a loan from European Investment Bank (EIB) which approved a multi tranche loan of Euro 500 million and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) approved a loan of USD 335 million. That is 52% from foreign banks out of the total budget of USD 1,785.00 million for this line. In 2021, BMRCL secured a $318 million loan from JICA, and a $500 million loan from the Asian Development Bank  (ADB) to fund construction of the Outer Ring Road-Airport metro. The State and Union governments will contribute US$530 million, and the Karnataka Government will pay an additional US$370 million for land acquisition. That is, 47% of the budget is coming from foreign banks for this line.

With an objective to understand the conditions of the workers constructing this heavily foreign funded project, AICCTU started visiting the worker camps and interacting with them in the construction sites. We will point out some important insights and conversations that came out of these visits.

No contract, No overtime payment and no minimum wage

By neoliberal design, the lowest ranks of the workers, who constitute the majority, are mostly inter-state migrant workers from West Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand, Rajasthan, MP, Uttarakhand etc. There exists a hierarchy of contractors. For example, companies like Starworth, Texmaco or L&T being at the top and sub-contractors (thekedars) with local connections with teams of migrant workers hailing from a given village, being at the bottom. None of the workers have been signed up with a formal contract.

Most workers work for 12 hrs for 6 days. But there is no paid weekly off-day. So, some workers also work for 7days a week. Overtime wage for work exceeding 8 hrs a day is not paid. Idea of PF and ESI is alien to most of the workers. Majority of the workers do not have registration under BOCW or inter-state migrant workers or any other governmental scheme.

Depending on the skillset of the workers the salary varies. The lowest rank of the workers are paid from Rs 9,000 to Rs 15,000 per month. That is at best around Rs 500-550 per day for 12 hours of work (Considering Rs 12,000 as the monthly salary, some workers have also reported Rs 400 per day figure). However, the minimum wage guideline says that even for an unskilled worker, Rs 639 has to be paid for 8 hours work in a day. Considering the rule that double payment has to be made for the extra 4 hours work that they do, the payment according to the law has to be Rs 1278 per day. That is, most of the workers are not even paid half the salary they should have been paid by law. Here, we are not even considering the allowances that they are supposed to get if they work at a height or in a tunnel, as most of them do.

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For some jobs requiring special skills, there is a stark division of labour, according to where they come from. Workers from West Bengal are mostly involved in laying tracks, workers from Bihar are mostly involved in painting, workers from Rajasthan are mostly involved with marble works etc.

On how cost of labour-power is determined, Karl Marx observed in Wage Labor and Capital – “It is the cost required for the maintenance of the labourer as a labourer, and for his education and training as a labourer. Therefore, shorter the time required for training up to a particular sort of work, the smaller is the cost of production of the worker, the lower is the price of his labour-power, his wages. In those branches of industry in which hardly any period of apprenticeship is necessary and the mere bodily existence of the worker is sufficient, the cost of his production is limited almost exclusively to the commodities necessary for keeping him in working condition.”

Thus, this divison of labour according to where they come from, helps the corporates to keep the wages low by avoiding the cost to train the workers separately in these special skills, as the workers are already trained due to the skill being part of their family occupation.

Delayed wage payment is common and the wages are usually paid in cash, although there  we found some mentions of bank transfers. The wage is paid by the sub-contractor (thekedar, who is the lowest layer of contractor most of the time having no official licence), however, the guideline says that the payment has to be made directly by the company who is having official contract.

Non-payment of wages is very common. For instance, in the Reach 6 site of the project, after some dispute between Simplex (the contractor) and BMRCL, more than 30 thekedars and 500 workers had not been paid for five months (September 2020 to January 2021). The workers stayed in the city for a few months waiting for their wages; however, because they are forced to live from hand to mouth, they had to go back to their villages. After number of representations to the Central Labour Department with details of workers from AICCTU and protests by the thekedars, the workers, as of now, have only got a month of the pending pay.

Conditions in the Workers Camps

Usually 8-12 workers share single temporary rooms made of tin walls and sheds. Many times no ceiling fan or proper ventilation exists in these rooms. Numbers of toilets are low in comparison with number of workers resident in the camps. For example, in the Kenchenahalli camp, there are about 14 toilets for 450 workers of which the majority lie defunct. There are open common bathing spaces that get filled by tankers. The bathing water was extremely dirty in all places and was seen to have floating chunk of dirt and algae in it. The workers in a lot of camps complained that there is lack of water supply, also there is no water supply in the lavatories and there is no provision of cleaning them periodically. Lots of garbage dumps could be seen around in all the camps and the surrounding is extremely unhygienic. Many workers complained of bed bugs filling their rooms. The workers have formed groups and each group runs a small mess, the expenses for which are managed by the workers themselves.

A committee to monitor the conditions of the workers in these camps were formed after an order given by the Karnataka High Court in Samuel Sathyasheelan vs Union Of India case represented by Clifton D’ Rozario (National Secretary of AICCTU). Although the order was passed in 2014, the committee was inactive. It was reinitiated during the COVID times after repeated representations from AICCTU but we were not allowed inside the worker camps and the site most of the time. The reason might have been that our reports from these camp visits used to make the committee really uncomfortable.

To the workers we have spoken, many from their families migrate to different cities including Bangalore for some work in unorganized sector time to time. Almost all the workers are from peasant family, and most of them go back during crop season. On asking why they left their villages, unanimously they said because farming has become unprofitable for them, livelihood is difficult in villages. However, most of them said, if those are from rural area are given a chance with profitable farming they would surely like to move back to their native place.

Part-2 can be read here.

“Author is a based in Bangalore and works with migrant workers. The article was first published in Workers Resistance. “

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