NEW DELHI // A coalition of 30 construction unions in India is demanding that the Commonwealth Games Federation address workers' rights in its charter because it says many contractors working on projects for the Games here are ignoring the safety and welfare of the workers.
The Indian government acknowledges that 42 workers have died on construction sites for venues to be used during the 11-day event that starts on October 3. Activists in New Delhi say that unreported accidents could mean the figure is closer to 100. In a country notorious for its dismal health and safety record, migrant workers say they are experiencing some of the worst conditions they have seen in India. The claims are among a litany of controversies surrounding the Games that include huge cost overruns, corruption allegations and missed deadlines.
"For safety, it has been worse here than anywhere I have worked," said a 25-year-old fitter from the state of Bihar. "There are no helmets, nothing. We have raised this with our managers and they promise something will be done, but it has not." He lives in filthy accommodations on the construction site for Shivaji Stadium, which will serve as hockey training facilities during the Games. As with the other dozen workers in the room, he was terrified of giving his name for fear of losing his job. He earns 200 rupees (Dh15.8) for eight hours' work and said he is expected to do four hours of overtime every day at the same rate. The minimum wage for skilled workers in Delhi is 240 rupees.
Beside him was an unskilled labourer from Jharkhand who earns just 120 rupees per day. "How can we complain?" he said. "If I say anything to the manager, he will get rid of me and find someone else." Six to eight workers share each ramshackle, corrugated-iron shack, sleeping on muddy floors with a single container of dirty-looking water. These are among the more fortunate. Reports in the media say hundreds of migrant workers for the Games are sleeping on footpaths and under flyovers.
"There is very little water and no medical facilities," said a 28-year-old carpenter who lives in the shack. Following a petition by a rights group this year, the Delhi High Court ordered the state government to register the estimated 25,000 labourers on Games projects. By collecting one per cent of costs from construction companies, the government has built a fund worth about US$80 million (Dh294m), which is supposed to pay for health facilities, housing and education grants for workers' children.
Six months on, unions say, only a few hundred Games workers have been registered and that even those with identity cards are denied basic rights. None of the workers interviewed had been registered. "It is a whitewash," said Rajeev Sharma, Delhi director for Builders and Workers International (BWI), an umbrella organisation for construction unions. "The companies register a handful of people to show the court they are doing something, but all the focus is on getting the venues ready at any cost, and workers' rights are completely ignored."
Part of the problem is the complex network of contractors and sub-contractors that hire labourers from rural areas, bring them to New Delhi and deduct large amounts from their salaries in the process. Most migrant labourers are unaware of their rights and see little point in registering. "The company took our photo," said a 36-year-old metal worker from Bihar. "But they never gave us a card. They say we will get benefits, but nothing has come. I know no one who has been given the things they promised."
The BWI said part of the responsibility for the conditions rests with the Commonwealth Games Federation, and has put together a petition from 30 Indian unions demanding changes. "We want a clause in the federation charter that makes core labour standards a prerequisite of any country being awarded the games," Mr Sharma said. "We have failed the workers in this country, but we can try to make sure this never happens again."
The federation president, Mike Fennell, denied any responsibility. "We want to ensure everyone is fully respected, but we don't feel we should impose on any country our views. It is for the local government to ensure their laws are properly followed." The New Delhi Municipal Council, which holds the construction contract for Shivaji Stadium and several other Games projects, flatly denied the allegations made by workers at their site. "All our workers are registered," said Anand Tiwari, a spokesman. "I don't think it is true that people are not getting minimum wage? We have people onsite every day to supervise these things."
A spokesman for the Delhi Legal Services Authority, which supervises the registration of workers, said site visits would begin this week to verify adherence to labour regulations on Games sites, but that it was unknown how many workers were employed or registered. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org