Lalita, a 24-year-old woman, lies next to her newborn baby inside her ‘hut’, a structure made out of thin branches supporting a blue tarpaulin sheet. “The baby was born here yesterday,” she told me as I scanned the face of the baby and the mother, both looking dangerously underweight. Lalita is a migrant construction worker currently living in an informal settlement on the outskirts of Bhuj, a Tier-2 city located in the state of Gujarat in India.
She came to Bhuj four years ago from her village in Madhya Pradesh—a state located in central India—after she married her husband Vinesh, who was already working in Bhuj as a construction worker. Until Vinesh died in an accident two months ago, he and Lalitha used to set off to find work every day at 7 am in the morning at Jubilee Circle, a central spot in the city where migrant construction workers congregate daily to find work from different contractors who come to select them for their respective sites.
According to the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO), Lalita is one of 74 million construction workers in India who are part of an industry worth USD600 billion dollars.1 However, this wealth has not trickled down to workers like Lalita who work in dangerous conditions without any job security or welfare benefits. “My husband and I used to earn 600 rupees (USD7) every day, but now that he is no more, I will have difficulty finding work and if I do, nobody will give me more than 250 rupees (USD3) a day.” Lalita’s life offers a preview into the plight of millions of construction workers who, despite multiple policies and regulations, remain largely vulnerable and exploited.
A GLOBAL CRISIS
There has been enough evidence collected and collated by various agencies and organisations across the world to show that the construction sector has not done enough to safeguard the interests and well-being of the workers. However, not much has changed even in the face of such damning evidence. There is an ongoing blame game between different stakeholders of the industry where each—from governments and developers to contractors and architects—struggles to define and act on their roles when it comes to the issue of construction workers on-site.
Zaha Hadid, the late star architect who was commissioned to design stadiums for the 2022 FIFA World Cup was asked by The Guardian in the aftermath of deaths of 500 Indian and 382 Nepalese workers in Qatar about her role in solving the crisis. She said, “I have nothing to do with the workers, I think that’s an issue the government—if there’s a problem—should pick up. Hopefully, these things will be resolved. I cannot do anything about it because I have no power to do anything about it. I think it’s a problem anywhere in the world. It’s not my duty as an architect to look at it.”6
Hadid’s remarks drew huge backlash and criticism, but the architect merely echoed the sentiments and practices of most architects, who are not involved with or even aware of worker issues on their sites.
RESIDUE OF ARCHITECTURAL EDUCATION
There has been a general lack of understanding and interest around the issue of construction workers amongst architects. Althoff, who has worked in many countries, admitted to having limited knowledge of labour laws in countries outside of Rwanda. This ignorance is often the residue of architectural education, which is heavily focused on design and architecture of buildings, but conveniently forgets the people who build that architecture.
Mabel O. Wilson, a professor at the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAPP), Columbia University, co-founded Who Builds Your Architecture? (WBYA?) to create a pedagogical framework for engaging with the issues of labour in architecture. “Few years ago, there was a petition floating around, which demanded that the Guggenheim Foundation fairly treat the workers who were going to work on the museum in Abu Dhabi, and I didn’t find a single architect on the list of signatories,” Wilson explained in an interview.7
WBYA? works as an interdisciplinary advocacy group that examines the links between labour, architecture and the global networks that form around construction. The group, since their formation, has worked to document the complex global supply chain with the aim of making architects more aware of their connections to others in it, including, most importantly, on-site workers.
THE FUTURE OF LABOUR RIGHTS
Nandini Sampat, principal architect at Somaya and Kalappa Consultants (SNK), was present at the discussion and later spoke at length about labour rights in architecture—an issue that has been at the centre of their company ever since Brinda Somaya founded it in the 1970s.
“We have been very upfront about setting certain values centred around justice and equality, which we advocate on all projects across different geographical and cultural contexts. The tangible outcomes of this approach may look different as the needs of the labour changes if one is working in an urban setting to a rural one, but the basic premise is that everyone is treated fairly with dignity and respect.”
Sampat’s firm works closely with contractors to ensure that the workers are compensated fairly, have access to clean drinking water, as well as toilets, and safe housing when migrant workers are involved. “There is a long way to go to achieve equality and justice for the workers employed in the construction sector but there is definitely more awareness, concern and empathy than a decade ago.”
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Bhawna Jaimini is a writer and urban practitioner based in Mumbai, India. Trained as an architect, she currently works with Community Design Agency on projects that seek to improve the built habitats of some of the most marginalised communities in India’s urban areas, using participatory tools. She is deeply passionate about gender rights and using architecture and design to address issues of social inequality and inequity in these areas.