Labour Pains: Men at work
Manak Matiyani | 26 Mar 2008

The islands, today, are dotted with construction sites, rising smoke, dust
and debris of old buildings and construction material for new buildings.
"Old location", "new location", "permanent shelter" and "temporary shelter"
are the new additions to the social geography of the islands.

Of all the other measures involved in disaster management, the most visible
and talked about is the construction of "permanent shelters." At an early
stage, the government rejected the idea of giving money to the people to
build their own houses the way they wanted. The idea of making materials
available at a low cost was also rejected as the government thought it fit
to build disaster resistant shelters in modern colonies the likes of which
the islanders had not seen before. It was of little consequence that the
people did not like the materials being used, the designs of the houses or
the locations and layouts of the new colonies. Fishermen sitting kilometres
away from the sea not being able to earn their daily bread would have to
consolation of not dying in another tsunami when and if it struck the
islands. Similarly with shopkeepers away from their shops and farmers away
from their farms and plantations.

For this, a lot of rebuilding work was subcontracted by the CPWD. As a
result, today, even to begin understanding how these houses are being built
is a complicated process. At any given temporary shelter construction site
there are on an average three different contract companies, one constructing
the shelter, one making the roads and another looking after sanitation. In
the shelter itself, there is usually one contractor and company making the
foundations and another working on the superstructure. Any answers as to
when the shelters will finally be complete would involve all the involved
companies and a cumulative assessment of the multiple deadlines.

The contractors were from outside and they brought their own labourers to
work in various islands. The problems of bringing mainland labourers to the
islands have been variously debated and discussed by various organisations,
the administration and individuals. The population of the islands is already
beyond the man bearing capacity of the islands and the added floating labour
population would create a further strain on the limited resources available.

From personal experience I know that in many places women feel unsafe
walking out after dark and going out alone as so many outside labourers are
present. In the past, local government officials have told my female
colleagues to be wary of labourers while travelling and working in the
islands on work. It would seem that the labourers from mainland have created
a range of disturbances in the daily lives of the islanders. It has become
next to impossible to get tickets to travel in the islands as a large number
of tickets are issued by contractors for continuous movement of labourers.
One can easily stand at the jetty on the day of a sailing and see how many
labourers are travelling to the Nicobars and how people who live and work
there are unable to get tickets. Those who do get tickets have to stand for
hours on end in never ending lines only to be issued lesser tickets than
what they want. The other option is to get tickets in black for double the
price and despite the government refusing to accept it, a considerable
number of tickets become available only after the reservation counter is
closed. Added to that is the massive organisational exercise of registering
who exactly is travelling to the tribal areas and monitoring tribal passes
issued. Of course, that would become a massive burden on the administration
only if it were actually being done. None of the labourers from outside
travel on tickets issued in their own names and with tribal passes that have
been issued to them. There are many more labourers than tribal passes and
again, this is one of the many embarrassing details which the administration
can not officially admit. In a hypothetical situation, if there is another
earthquake or a tsunami in the islands, the government will have absolutely
no record of who were the labourers in the islands at the time. It would not
be ludicrous to suggest that none of the people whose tribal passes have
been issued by contractors are still in the islands. In case of another
disaster, the names of all the labourers would not make it to the treasured
lists of dead and missing just like the names of so many non-tribals living
in tribal areas for years before the tsunami did not make it to any lists.
All such embarrassing details can not be officially admitted and what is not
"official" warrants no empathy, no help and no mention in any records.

On discussing informally with some CPWD officials one learns the common
problems with employing people from the islands. The people from the
islands, specially the nicobarese are not used to working in the heat and
they usually end up making some sheds in the work area to avoid working in
the sun. They can not work for long hours and construction of the kind that
is required for the shelters is something for which they do not have the
skills. Add to that my simple logic of why people would like to work on
building houses that they do not want in the first place. Informal
discussions with supervisors and contractors reveal that mainland labourers
are much more used to being overworked and do not mind working long hours in
the sun. Also, once they are here, they would be dependent on the
contractors for everything and they are less likely to create any problems
or protest. They are also much happier with getting lower than minimum wages
as it is higher than what they would be getting in mainland.

In all the discussions and debates around tsunami rehabilitation and its
woes, the one thing that is often left out is the condition of the labourers
that have been brought to make the permanent shelters. How the labourers
live, work and are treated has escaped scrutiny all together. The labourers
working in the islands are a floating population who come here on contracts
of three to six months and then go back to mainland. Many times, when they
become a liability for the contractors, all of them don't go back. They fall
sick, are unable for work and are abandoned by the contractors. A lot of
them run away from the work and the terrible living conditions, try and find
jobs to save some money and then go back. Running away is not an easy
proposition as for some reason officers at the ticket counters have been
told not to issue tickets to labourers at all. A boat ticket to Port Blair
has to be either taken by the contractor or is given only on showing medical
certificates and a doctor's statement saying the person needs medical
attention. In any other situation, a labourer is trapped on the islands
where the contractor takes him. I guess the "kalapani" image refuses to
leave us even though the British have! How many of them stay back in the
islands is anyone's guess. The lower than minimum wage payment for many is
still more than they would be able to make in the mainland and so they do
not speak about it or complain.

I met one such group of labourers working at the permanent shelter site at
Onge tikree in Little Andaman. Hailing from different parts of the country
they all chose to seek opportunities in Bombay and had been working as
labourers and daily wagers in Bombay for many years. Then one day they
seemed to have landed a lucrative job opportunity when a contract company
told them they would be taken to Sri Lanka to work in the tsunami
reconstruction work there. They were promised bank accounts, ATM cards and
a lump sum payment of 15,000 rupees on reaching the site. Instead, they were
brought instead to the Andaman and Nicobar islands and sent to Little
Andaman Island, where they have been working for the past three months
without being paid their wages or any money except 100-200 rupees per week
as allowance. They eat from the ration given by the contractor and live on
the site in the half finished permanent shelters. Drinking water is brought
from a nearby ditch.

I visited Ongee tikree, and spoke to them during various times of the day
and night and got the opportunity to speak with them at length about their
living conditions, their families back home and what they wanted. The
labourers from Bombay told me at length about their condition over a meal of
potatoes and Chapatis which I was told was the daily fare. They had been
duped and on asking for money the contractor kept putting them off for a day
or two each time. Their families got the same response on contacting the
contractor, one Ashok Waghmare in Bombay. Their identity cards and documents
had been kept by the contract company at the time of travelling. The
officials at the ticket counter did not issue tickets to labourers without
the permission of the contractor or a medical reason so running away and
going back was not a simple proposition. All of them did not even want to
run away. They just wanted to be given what was due to them and better
living conditions and food.

One of these labourers was a boy called Raju (Name Changed). He fell sick
with malaria and was admitted in the hospital in Hut Bay for 13 days. No one
from the contract company came to ask after him or help him during this
time. He was given about 20 bottles of intravenous saline water and his arm
became swollen in places where they had inserted the drip. On being
discharged he went back to the labour camp but was unable to work because of
weakness. The contractor was duly informed and took prompt action for the
first time. He told the supervisor to throw the boy out as he was useless as
a labourer. The supervisor followed instructions and Raju was without any
money, without any identity proof and without any support to go home. He
managed to run away from hut Bay to Port Blair. His supervisor helped him in
getting a ticket and told him "go away or you'll die here." On reaching Port
Blair he contacted me because me and my colleagues met him in hut bay and
gave our numbers to all the labourers in case they needed help. Not really
knowing what to do at the time, we thought the best thing to do would be to
book his ticket back to Bombay. But to do that we needed some proof of
identification. The contractor had taken everything, even the identity card
he was issued to say that he was a labourer. On calling his home and
speaking to his mother we realised he was 14 years old! According to him
there were others younger than him who had run away after a month. The
matter was reported to the Child Welfare Committee and the child line who
arranged for him to be sent back to Mumbai. On investigation, the Child
Welfare committee in Mumbai realised that this was a regular practice and
the contractor had sent another batch of 20-25 children to work in the
Andamans.. all of them were told they were going to Sri Lanka.

The government is supposed to be monitoring who comes into the islands. they
are supposed to have details of the labourers employed by the contractors.
This we all understand would be an easier process if the work had not been
subcontracted by the CPWD and then further Subcontracted to some other
company. Apart from the making sure that the tsunami relief funds slip away
at every stage, this also makes monitoring and checking impossible. Raju was
lucky to have been in Hut Bay, he might not have been able to come out so
easily from a Tribal Reserve Area. There must be many others who can not,
and continue to work despite terrible conditions as they have no other
choice. On remote islands, they are stuck with no way of coming out without
the help of contractors who's only motive is to cut down costs as much as
possible, no matter what.

The matter has been reported to the labour commissioner and the child line..
it is for the administration now to admit some embarrassing truths and take
action to improve the lot of the labourers. Usually this would mean the
problematic bunch would get sent back and the contractor would be issued a
notice to which he might or might not respond. The files will lie in an
administrative cupboard and gather dust till another case being reported
leads to another notice copy being attached to the first one. Terrible
working conditions and children doing hard labour are real truths that need
urgent and strict attention.

The reason for writing this is to circulate information on the many human
rights violations that are going unchecked. The matter must be taken up at
higher levels and organisations and individuals who can help should get