Women workers in construction sector continue to experience exploitation on several frontsThe workers are formally organising against unequal pay, workplace safety, and workplace harassment, and this is helping them protect their rights, recent study concludes
For Baladevi Baduwal Rai, from Beni, Myagdi, life took a difficult turn when her husband fell sick in 2006. As the sole breadwinner of the family was bedridden, she had no option other than to work to sustain her family. But for uneducated Rai, the only job she could get was that of a construction site helper.
The mother of a newly born son, Rai had to carry construction material and her infant up a 15-20 minute uphill road every day. She took up the job out of helplessness rather than by choice. For that, she received Rs120 a day.
More than a decade later, Rai is still working at construction sites. Today, she has now become a local-level leader for tens of thousands of women construction workers in the country, and her daily wage has increased from Rs120 to Rs700. But, other issues such as equal pay, safety at the workplace, harassment, better facilities, and insurance among other welfare schemes have not made significant progress. Construction workers, especially women, around the country continue to face gender-based discrimination in terms of payment and treatment, she says.
Even in the Capital city, discrimination towards women construction workers is rampant. Sunita Tamang, from Lalitpur, has been working as a construction worker for more than two years. Despite her work is similar to her male counterparts, there is a disparity in the payscale: while men receive Rs1000 per day on the site, Tamang gets only Rs800.
“I have no idea why I am getting paid less for the same work,” says Tamang, struggling to find an answer. “My contractor says men workers are paid more because they do more work. My pay also depends upon the availability of workers. If there is a shortage of workers, I would be paid slightly more than the usual Rs800.”
According to the latest National Labour Force Survey, 2019, nearly 111,000 women are working in the construction sector and the vast majority of them—approximately 103,000—are engaged in informal work.
The high number of women workers persists because the construction sector is always in need of more labourers, and uneducated, poor women need jobs to make ends meet. But because of this high number, exploitation has also persisted over the years.
The findings of a two-year research project—Precarity, Migration and Agency: Women Construction Workers in Nepal by SOAS University of London—which has studied the conditions, experiences and strategies women workers use to better their working conditions in the construction sector, portray a situation that is similar to Rai and Tamang’s reality in the country.
During the research period, a team of researchers—all female— interviewed over 100 women construction workers based in Kailali, Myagdi, Kavre, Nuwakot, Sindhupalchok, Saptari, Lalitpur, and Kathmandu. According to their findings, nearly 80 percent of women construction workers in Kathmandu Valley are migrants from outside districts and more than half of them were single women, who also head household affairs.
“Although women are entering the construction sector, which has been traditionally dominated by men, they are still seen viewed as mere helpers,” said Feyzi Ismail, one of the researchers with the Project.
“As men continue to migrate abroad to seek work, many women have taken up work outside the home to maintain the household. Also, increasing construction following the earthquakes has increased the demand for construction workers,” said Ismail.
The research also gathers the experiences of women construction workers working under dangerous conditions, unequal and inadequate pay, gendered discrimination, time poverty and sexual harassment in the sector and how these women are organising themselves to improve these conditions and make demands on government and employers.
“They certainly do not have proper contracts, workplace safety, toilets and other basic facilities at the construction sites,” added Ismail. “The identity of the women workers also comes into play when it comes to equal treatment. For instance, a Brahmin worker would be given drinking water but a Dalit woman worker was expelled from her job.”
In order to fight discrimination, the research found that women workers have started uniting to protect their rights through formal channels, like forming labour unions. The study also found that women workers who were not affiliated with such groups had less chance of even getting work on construction sites.
Despite severe discrimination towards women construction workers, Rai feels the situation has improved slightly, but a lot more needs to be done.
“Newcomers are still paid less than their male counterparts. It is difficult to work during the menstruation period. There is discrimination in terms of pay and work burden,” said Rai.
To end such inequality, it is imperative the government step in. But no effort has been put in yet. “From local to central level government, nobody with authority has not done much to end this disparity,” she says.
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