Why SC verdict on social security of 4 crore construction workers is welcome
The first step should be to cover the entire workforce of the construction sector under the provisions of the Employees State Insurance Act.
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The Supreme Court on Monday directed the Union government to bring four crore construction workers within the ambit of social welfare laws and provide them benefits such as paid maternity leave, provident fund, apart from minimum wages, by treating them as formal sector employees. Inter alia, the apex court has directed the central government to frame a model welfare scheme to ensure that such workers and their family members get proper education, healthcare, social security benefits, old age and disability pension and other relief necessary to live a dignified life.
As of now, the employment and conditions of service of construction workers are being formally regulated under the Building and Other Construction Workers (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act in 1996, which also aimed at providing for their safety, healthcare and social welfare. The Act, which came into force in March 1996, applies to every establishment which employs 10 or more workers for any kind of construction work.
The Act covers both building construction and "other construction" work within its ambit. The definition of "other construction" work is wide and includes repairs, maintenance, demolition, and alterations. Subject to certain conditions, the definition of the building workers includes supervisory staff too. Quite obviously, these numbers are not fully reported. Therefore, it is likely that the number of four crore put by the Supreme Court is much larger.
It is also worth noting that the apex court has observed that not all workers have been registered under the Act as so far only 1.5 crore out of 4 crore stand covered. The bench observed that construction workers have been badly let down by the governance structure, which is supposed to oversee the implementation of such policies.
Media reports suggest that the Unique Identification Authority of India has managed to ensure that most people in the country have Aadhaar cards, it can become a strong reference data to know the exact number of people employed in the construction sector.
The bench of justices Madan B Lokur and Deepak Gupta observed that both the central and state governments were not addressing the plight of construction workers despite having levied and collected around Rs 37,400 crore as cess at the rate of 1 per cent of the construction cost. Only Rs 9,500 crore has so far been utilised for the purpose it was meant to serve.
The first step should be to cover the entire workforce of the construction sector under the provisions of the Employees State Insurance Act and to extend to them and their family members a dignified medical cover for basic healthcare needs.
Once covered under the insurance scheme, the maternity benefit provisions can also be easily extended to the eligible female population of building and construction workers.
The same data should also qualify their enrolment in the Economically Weaker Section categories further opening for them the avenues of education and skill development under the Right to Education Act.
The master data for the ESIC could be the basis for their integration with the Employees Provident Fund system. They should, however, not be compelled to make any personal contributions under the EPF Act at least for a period of three years.
Demand for providing easily accessible creches for children of female construction workers also needs to be pushed further with a lot of zeal. While this is a tall order for both the Centre and state governments, the target is achievable since the resources are in place. The only needed is a will to make it happen.