Examining the multifaceted forms of gender-based discrimination experienced by women in the construction work industry
5 minutes read
As individuals with significant social privilege, the ambit of our imagination is constricted by our worldviews. Our picturizations of the construction industry tend to be masculinized caricatures that are oblivious to the lived realities of the scores of women who are employed in this industry. While male construction workers are employed as contractors, supervisors, masons, painters and so on, their female counterparts are relegated to menial roles and are effectively invisibilized. These women are underpaid and overworked, more often than not.
Women construction workers are trapped in a cycle of late entry, being unskilled, receiving low wages and therefore being casualized. There is an ever-widening gender gap in the areas of education, skill development, upward mobility, and the importance of women’s earnings to family vis-a-vis men’s earnings. Although many labor laws are applicable to the industry, none of them have been able to ensure construction workers’ basic right to safe working and living conditions.
The gendered division of labour and rampant sexism within the industry lead to the marginalisation of female construction workers and their ghettoisation in the least paid sector of unskilled work.
Across the country, neither their needs as women nor their rights as workers have received proper addressal. While their nature of employment makes them vulnerable to health issues, job stress, and injuries, the gender and class intersections of their identities make them vulnerable to sexual harassment, gender biases, and wage discrimination.
The construction industry is one of the fastest-growing industries in India and employs about 30 million people, of whom nearly 51% are women. It is exceedingly rare for women in this industry to gain access to opportunities to acquire skills in more lucrative but predominantly male-dominated trades such as carpentry, masonry, plumbing, and electrician training. They instead perform various unskilled jobs in the industry such as cleaning building sites, carrying bricks, gravel, mortar and water up to the skilled carpenters and masons. Regardless of their level of experience, they are not upgraded to the position of skilled workers from unskilled workers. They are simply unable to ascend in the industry.
The contractual nature of the construction industry often nullifies the minimum wage standards that exist in legislation. Women are paid less than men for performing the same work. Moreover, women are the first ones to be laid off or underemployed. A recent report carried out by Ravi Shrivatsava, a professor of economics in JNU, claims that the share of employment days for women workers has been decreasing since 1983, when it was at 18% of total person-days of employment in the industry versus 10.5% in 2011-12. These figures reveal the open hostility towards women in the construction industry. Women also bear the brunt of the increased seasonal irregularity of work in the industry.
Sexual harassment is often wielded as a tool by subcontractors and other men in the industry to exercise uncamouflaged power over women. The insecure nature of their employment is often taken advantage of by contractors who tend to seek out young women construction workers to exploit sexually. The threat of sexual harassment always hangs above their heads. Being at the receiving end of not just sexual abuse, but also verbal abuse in the form of lewd and inappropriate comments, women tend to go to work in groups to improve their odds.
Healthcare and Safety Hazards
Researchers have postulated that construction sites are an extension of the domestic sphere. Many families reside on these sites, thus effectively erasing the presumed capitalist boundaries between home and the workplace. Mothers, therefore, face difficulties in practising exclusive breastfeeding which leads to the hampering of the growing child’s nutrient intake and energy needs. Mothers also face issues of access to healthcare. There is a low uptake of antenatal check-ups during their pregnancy, which are essential for a safe pregnancy and health of the child. Furthermore, the lack of access to toilets is an overarching obstacle that is faced by women employed in different industries in the informal economy and not just the construction industry.
Apart from posing questions about these women in the broader societal context, it is also imperative to seek solutions from diverse institutional arenas. Hindered by a host of factors such as structural constraints, gender-based discrimination and reproductive labour, women in the construction industry must be aided by suitable policy intervention that enables upward mobility. A paradigm shift is required in the implicit power dynamics that operate in the industry which places skilled labourers and male workers at top of the hierarchy. Certain areas require urgent attention in order for women to cement their position in this industry. These include the gender sensitization of all stakeholders of the industry, capacity building of women that increases the value of their labour, implementation of comprehensive legislation, recruiting women to higher echelons of the industry and leveraging market mechanisms to favour women. SEWA NIRMAN generates sustainable livelihood for women construction workers by organizing & training semi-skilled workers and freeing them from exploitation.
Women occupying leadership positions in the construction industry are still outliers and not the norm. However, the stories of these women are heartwarming in that they throttle the structure of the workforce that is designed to subdue their voices. Radharani and Sabita from Odisha are two skilled workers in this male-dominated industry who call the shots at their workplace. Employed as a painter and a stone mason, respectively, they weather the storms of patriarchal judgement everyday as they head teams of people and outperform their male counterparts. Unfortunately, these women are still an infinitesimal minority.
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- South Asia @ LSE: ‘How can a woman do these things?’ Evaluating pathways of mobility for female construction workers, 2018
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