Only a week after her infant died suddenly at four months, while sleeping, Seema had to rush to work, toiling up and down a six-floor building under construction near India's capital.
Her son, 2, covered in mud and gravel, played nearby as the mother struggled to balance a stack of bricks on her feeble frame.
Three years ago Seema and her husband, also a construction worker, were thrilled when they arrived in Noida, a satellite city outside New Delhi.
They came from Bhagalpur, in Bihar, one of India’s most impoverished states.
But last week, the 20-year-old hurriedly buried the baby and returned to work, afraid of losing out on the daily meagre earnings that support her family.
“My heart is broken, but I had no time to mourn. If I don’t work, I won’t get paid,” Seema, who uses only one name, told The National.
“My body is too weak and I can barely breathe because of the weight of the bricks but I have another son to feed.”
Women like Seema, toiling hard at construction sites, are a common sight across India.
Like their counterparts in many other sectors, women get a raw deal because of gender bias, despite making equal contributions to the industry.
Construction is the second largest industry in India after agriculture, contributing significantly to the country’s economy.
There are more than 40 million workers engaged in the sector, of which 49 per cent are females, as per the latest data from the Ministry of Labour and Employment.
About 65.68 per cent of the registered workers are in the age group of 16-40 and another 35 per cent are aged above 40.
Construction has traditionally been a male-dominated industry, but an army of invisible women remain the backbone of the workforce.
Most women labourers are illiterate and married off at a young age, often joining their husbands in cities where they are recruited by contractors.
They work as concrete mixers, diggers, stone breakers and brick haulers, but are never considered skilled enough to work as masons or carpenters.
Yet even at those lower levels, women are paid less than their male counterparts.
A male labourer makes up to 500 rupees ($7) a day but a woman, who does equal physical labour, is paid 300 rupees ($4) a day and often allowed to work only 15 days a month.
In addition to the hard labour, they have to fulfil many family responsibilities, including cleaning and feeding the children and husband.
They even toil when they are pregnant and resume work soon after giving birth.
At construction sites, women can often be seen working hard as their newborns sleep in makeshift cloth cradles.
“I worked until seven months into my pregnancy and resumed work a month after delivery," Seema says. "If I rest, we cannot survive on my husband’s income.”
They lack amenities such as clean toilets and basic safety equipment, making the women prone to hazards and exposure to construction pollution.
Their hands and feet are exposed to the cement mixture, causing skin diseases and scoliosis from inhalation of cement dust.
Activists say the women labourers suffer because of low levels of awareness and gender discrimination.
Organisations such as the Self Employed Women’s Association (Sewa) — India’s largest female trade union, say most women labourers are unaware of their rights.
“These women hardly get any facilities because their employers do not feel the need to provide those facilities and the women never question them,” Lata, who also goes by single name, vice president of Sewa’s Delhi Union, told The National.
“They work more, compared to men working at one place, as these women climb scaffolding carrying bricks, facing hazards yet they are not respected,” she said.
Ms Lata said that frequent migration from one city to another leaves them without any social security benefits that provide maternity, health and pensions in their home states.
“The contractors recruit them from villagers and keep sending them from one place to another. There needs to be awareness and co-ordination among all the states,” Ms Lata said.
Cycle of Debt
Many women are forced to work in the construction industry to supplement the family income.
Others want to pay off debts that may have arisen after failed farming ventures, while raising children and, in recent years, due to the pandemic.
The pandemic upturned the lives of tens of millions of people around the world but the Indian migrant workers were among the hardest hit by lockdowns and economic disruptions.
Most of the casual workers were out of work for months after India imposed a lockdown in March 2020 to curb the spread of Covid-19.
Many took loans to survive the bad times and now are working to pay off those debts.
“My husband took a loan of 50,000 rupees ($650) during the Covid pandemic. I have to work now to help him pay it off,” Mohsina Bibi, 25, said.
The working conditions also take a toll on the mental health of these women as they are forced to live away from their children.
While most give birth in cities, they leave their children with grandparents in villages at a young age for care as they struggle to live in makeshift tents or buildings under construction to save money.
Sulochana Kumari, a 32-year-old worker from Panna in central Madhya Pradesh state has three children — two sons, 15 and 14 and one daughter, 11, who live with their grandparents.
A school dropout, Ms Kumari was a homemaker before she started working a few years ago when her children grew older and the family needed more money.
“It is not easy to live without your children. I miss them every day,” Ms Kumari told The National.
“This work is very hard. My whole body hurts but if I do not work, we will never have enough money to save for our children,” she said.