Building India's cities, silent workforce of women goes unrecognized

Sun Jan 11, 2015 8:32pm EST
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By Nita Bhalla

NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When newly-wed Kamlesh was told she would be accompanying her husband to work in the city, she was thrilled at the prospect of a better life than in the drought-prone village in central India where she grew up.

But arriving in New Delhi 12 years ago, crammed into the back of a truck with her husband and dozens of others, Kamlesh was shown a make-shift tent home on a pavement and realized that city life would not be what she had expected.

"We were put to work immediately. The contractors told us to clear all the dirt and soil around the construction site and carry the cement to the masons," said Kamlesh, 30, wearing a black, white and orange sari, squatting as she broke into a drain with a hammer on a Delhi roadside.

"I didn't realize how low the pay would be, how we would be living and that I wouldn't see my children much. The men always complain that we women are weak and don't work fast enough, but that's not true. We work just as hard."

Across towns and cities in India, it is not uncommon to see women like Kamlesh cleaning building sites, carrying bricks and or shoveling gravel - helping construct the infrastructure necessary for the country's economic and social development.

They help build roads, railway tracks, airports, and offices. They lay pipes for clean water supplies, cables for telecommunications, and dig the drains for sewage systems.

But although women make up at least 20 percent of India's 40 million construction workers, they are less recognized than male workers with lower pay and often prone to safety hazards and sexual harassment.

They are often unaware of their rights or scared to complain, say activists now trying to campaign for better treatment of women in the construction industry.   Continued...

Women labourers work at the construction site of a road in Kolkata January 8, 2015.   REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri