Migrant workers in the Indian construction industry face risks to their freedom, and economic and personal safety.

Research and Programming on Migrant Workers in India’s Construction Sector

Construction is the second largest industry in India, responsible for an estimated 60 million jobs. Prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was also one of its fastest growing sectors. In response to the significant demand for construction labor in major cities, millions of rural workers migrate seasonally to India’s urban centers to help address the shortfall of jobs.

Currently, migrant construction workers face several risks. They often lack networks of support at destination sites and are preyed upon by intermediary agents who routinely charge workers recruitment fees or a percentage of wages in recurring commission. Those workers who are able to bypass this broker system often still need to take advances or loans from either employers or private money lenders to cover their migration costs, generating debt burdens that leave them vulnerable to a range of labor abuses. These risks are exacerbated by the nature of the construction industry itself – a sector that is characterized by a high degree of informality and multi-layered supply chains that readily obscure exploitation.

Coupled with this, workers in this labor market are typically members of already vulnerable populations, deepening forced labor risks in the construction industry. While the Indian government has put in place a number of welfare schemes targeted at these workers, there is a general lack of awareness among migrant workers of existing benefit and entitlement programs, and further, as informal workers, the majority lack the necessary documentation required to access them. Most are also unaware of remediation options should they need to file a grievance or report workplace exploitation.

The findings in this brief represent evidence and inputs gathered directly from migrant construction workers, their family
members, micro-contractors, and other construction industry stakeholders. These consolidated insights shed light on
vulnerabilities specific to migrant workers in India’s construction sector, existing gaps in current worker-focused policies and
service delivery, and the viability of selected intervention models aimed at improving labor practices and outcomes for
workers. Drawing on these learnings, this report includes recommendation to inform action at various levels to ensure
the safety and protection of migrant construction workers.

For all findings and recommendations, download the briefing.

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Financial Security Means Safer Migration: Reducing Vulnerabilities Among Migrant Workers in India’s Construction Industry

In December 2020, an operator for the Jan Sahas helpline answered a call from a man claiming that his brother and six other workers were being held in inhumane conditions and against their will at a construction site in Faribadad. The man reported what his brother had told him- that since arriving, the migrants had received no pay for their work.

The Jan Sahas team responded immediately. They reached out to the local police and District Collector (DC) of Faridabad and an investigation was launched. Quickly after arriving at the site, the inspector was able to confirm the veracity of the claim: the workers had indeed been denied wages; none had even enough money to leave the site. An application to the DC filed on behalf of the migrants resulted in an order for restitution against the employers. They were forced to pay Rs. 1,16,340 (about $1,600 USD) in back wages to the workers they had defrauded and another Rs. 9000 (about $125 USD) to cover their transportation home. The network that Jan Sahas, together with GFEMS, set up to monitor and respond to cases of forced labor had worked. The man who had made that initial call to the helpline was reunited with his brother and the other migrants recovered what they had earned. 

The network that Jan Sahas, together with GFEMS, set up to monitor and respond to cases of forced labor had worked. The man who had made that initial call to the helpline was reunited with his brother and the other migrants recovered what they had earned.

The helpline is an essential component of Jan Sahas’ strategy to reduce forced labor in India’s construction industry, but it is only one part of more comprehensive programming. While providing support to those encountering situations of forced labor, Jan Sahas is committed to changing the systems that create vulnerabilities in the first place. In partnership with GFEMS, Jan Sahas developed programming to assess risk factors for forced labor among India’s migrant workers to better mitigate those risks; to raise awareness and ensure access to government entitlements to help migrants build a stronger safety net; and, in partnership with Pratham and Sambhav Foundation, to train employers on ethical labor practices to create safer and better work experiences. These collective efforts have made a difference in the lives of tens of thousands of migrants and their families. Many thousands more are less likely to experience forced labor or exploitation because of the efforts of Jan Sahas and our partners on the ground. 

India’s construction sector

Nearly 40% of India’s population or 450 million people are internal migrants. (This reality was made clear to the world last year when news outlets broadcast the mass exodus that followed the state-issued lockdown.) India’s construction industry is the country’s second largest employer and attracts a large number of migrant workers each year. Approximately thirty to fifty million of India’s construction workers are internal migrants.

While construction work offers an opportunity to earn additional income, especially during the agricultural off-season, evidence indicates that 10 percent or more of migrant construction workers – potentially five million people- could be in forced labor.  Various factors are contributing to this high rate.

Despite an unprecedented contraction of India’s construction industry in the first half of 2020 in response to COVID-19, the sector has made a strong recovery (despite another recent outbreak), and remains one of the fastest growing construction markets in the world. This, combined with a severe shortage of skilled labor and an abundance of informal recruitment brokers and middlemen eager to fill this labor gap, has significantly enhanced migrant workers’ vulnerability to exploitation.  

Jan Sahas: Promoting safe migration and worker protection

Jan Sahas targeted the 450 kilometer migration corridor stretching from Bundelkhand to Delhi. Of the estimated two million migrants who travel this route annually, early prevalence estimations show a rate of forced labor between 7.5 and 10%.

Building a safety net to reduce forced labor risks

For many migrant workers who live in a perpetual state of transit, it is difficult to access government entitlements. Though many are simply unaware of what benefits they are entitled to, others lack the formal documents needed to access these benefits. To overcome both of these challenges, Jan Sahas implemented programming to raise awareness of social welfare entitlements among migrant workers and to help migrants navigate complex government structures and processes. 

Before pursuing entitlements, Jan Sahas organized a series of awareness-raising community meetings to educate workers on existing benefit schemes and criteria for enrollment.  Despite early skepticism from workers who had participated in surveys before but never received promised benefits, the Jan Sahas team worked to gain worker trust and helped thousands register for entitlements including food rations, pensions, and those offered specifically to construction workers under India’s Building and Other Construction Workers (BOCW). 

Registering for entitlements can be cumbersome. In some localities, workers must present in-person at labor department offices to access benefits, which often means taking off work. BOCW cards require proof of work in the same location for 90 days, a requirement that many migrant workers are unable to meet. Others simply do not have the formal documentation needed for a successful application. 

To help overcome some of these obstacles, Jan Sahas guided migrant workers through the application process, clarifying more technical language and assisting in the preparation or collection of required documents. During the project period, Jan Sahas helped over 27,000 workers and their families access direct cash or cash-equivalent benefits. While follow-up interviews with workers revealed that most would not have known about entitlements or how to access them without Jan Sahas’ intervention, these entitlements provide a safety net for workers, allowing them greater agency to choose when and where they will work. 

Jan Sahas helped over 27,000 workers and their families access direct cash or cash-equivalent benefits. Follow-up interviews with migrant workers revealed that most would not have known about entitlements or how to access them without Jan Sahas’ intervention.

Beyond entitlements, awareness-raising campaigns introduced migrant workers to Jan Sahas’ toll-free helpline. The helpline is an outlet for workers to file grievances, report instances of forced labor or inhumane treatment, seek redress for lost wages, and access legal support services. In an expression of gratitude for the establishment of a helpline, a worker in Delhi reported that he “lost between INR 10,000-15,000 ($134-200 USD) of wage payments before a helpline was operational.” 

Supporting Migrant Workers during COVID-19

When COVID-19 struck in spring 2020 and India entered lockdown, the response from Jan Sahas and other implementing partners was immediate. As the true impact of the pandemic began to show in job losses and rising unemployment, the Indian government increased entitlement allotments and issued new benefits to help mitigate the worst effects. Jan Sahas, with a tracking and communication system already in place, intensified its outreach efforts to ensure migrant workers, a group left even more vulnerable by the pandemic and subsequent shutdowns, could access needed support. A migrant from Faridabad whom Jan Sahas had helped register for government entitlements captured the dire reality for many migrant workers during COVID: “Without ration or cash transfers, we would not have survived the challenges of COVID-19.”

In addition, Jan Sahas was able to utilize the existing programmatic framework to identify and provide food relief to over 1,000 of the most vulnerable migrant households.

Gathering data to assess risk factors and improve programming

Foundational to Jan Sahas’ programming was the development and implementation of a longitudinal migration tracking (LMT) system. This system is designed to capture data on migrant workers to better understand risk factors for forced labor, paying particular attention to whether program interventions decreased the likelihood of exploitation.  

To build a strong evidence base, Jan Sahas conducted extensive outreach at various departure points, including home villages and transit hubs, to register workers. Successfully registering over 89,000 migrant workers, surveyors then followed up at destination sites to assess the effectiveness of program interventions- specifically, access to entitlements and operation of a helpline- on reducing the incidence of forced labor. Follow-up communication with registered workers, combined with worker interviews, revealed that Jan Sahas’ programming was making a difference. Workers who were helped to access social protection benefits reported additional income and savings while those accessing the helpline were able to recover unpaid wages, escape forced labor conditions, and generally, feel safer. Jan Sahas hopes this data will encourage greater investment in similar prevention efforts. When more is known about migrant workers and experiences and what factors increase risks of exploitation, targeted action can be taken to reduce and ultimately eradicate forced labor.

Engaging employers to reduce the risk of forced labor

While Jan Sahas supported migrants to build greater financial security and provided them an outlet to air grievances and pursue justice, other implementing partners focused on developing the capacity of micro-contractors. Micro-contractors are the primary employers of unskilled and semi-skilled construction workers, employing between 5 and 25 persons at a time. Pratham and Sambhav led an effort to train micro-contractors on ethical labor practices to reduce the risk of forced labor among vulnerable migrants. Workers employed by trained micro-contractors expressed a desire to stay on with these employers as they had taken steps to create safe and equitable work environments, including ensuring on-time wage payments, providing safety equipment for risky jobs, and helping meet essential needs such as food and accommodation at destination sites. Women working for trained micro-contractors noted especially the attention these employers paid to eliminating discriminatory gender practices in the workplace. Unlike other employers, program-trained micro-contractors paid women separately from their spouses, ensuring greater female economic agency. 

Building local capacity to effect sustainable change

Jan Sahas’ programming to address forced labor in India’s construction industry has reached tens of thousands of workers. Some have received support to exit forced labor conditions, others have registered successfully for entitlements to reduce risks of exploitation, and still others have filed grievances to recoup lost wages.  Though this program may have formally concluded, Jan Sahas set up people and systems to carry its benefits forward. They successfully trained hundreds of social advocates or “barefoot lawyers” who will continue to share information on labor laws, rights, and entitlements with migrant workers and aid in benefit enrollments. Moreover, Jan Sahas continues to collaborate with key government actors at each stage of program implementation, including India’s Department of Labor, and other stakeholder groups across civil society, philanthropy, and the private sector to sustainably end forced labor.  We are proud to be a part of this collaboration.

Jan Sahas is a community and survivor-centric nonprofit organization committed to ending sexual violence and forced labor. To learn more, please visit Jan Sahas.

This article and the project it references were funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of State. The opinions, findings and conclusions stated herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of State.

Tracking of over 24,000 workers has helped us to identify forced labor, recover wages for survivors, and provide legal assistance in over 450 criminal and civil cases.

Over 24,500 have participated in our migrant worker study: Here’s what we’ve learned

GFEMS, in collaboration with  IST Research and the NEEV consortium, has undertaken a large-scale research effort aimed at understanding the recruitment, migration, and employment experiences of Indian workers from the rural Bundelkhand region who migrate to the Delhi National Capital Region (NCR) for work in the booming construction sector.

Rural workers typically migrate seasonally based on “push factors” tied to agricultural cycles, increasingly being impacted by unpredictable rainfall,  and “pull factors” such as the demand for construction labor in major cities. In fact, construction is now the second largest sector of employment in India. These domestic migrant workers are at risk of being exploited by the existing system of labor recruitment in the construction sector, where intermediary agents routinely charge workers with recruitment fees and a percentage of wages in recurring commission. The sector is further characterized by a high degree of informality, with multi-layered supply chains that readily obscure exploitation. Coupled with this, the majority of workers in this labor market are members of already vulnerable populations, deepening forced labor risks in the construction industry.  

The majority of workers in this labor market are members of already vulnerable populations, deepening forced labor risks in the construction industry.

The migrant worker study enrolls prospective domestic migrants into the study at their points of departure (i.e., home villages and major transportation hubs), and collects basic demographic information. The participants are then tracked through their seasonal journeys to work in the construction industry via follow-up phone surveys.  To date, the study has enrolled over 63,200 prospective migrant workers into the study, and has tracked and followed-up with over 24,500 of these participants via phone surveys to collect data on their migration experiences and labor conditions. Any participants that are identified as potential victims of forced labor during follow-up surveys are connected to local assistance services.

GFEMS is also leveraging the study to test the viability of three potentially scalable interventions that are being implemented in parallel, aimed at building the resilience of migrant construction workers to protect against forced labor and exploitation. These interventions are: providing access to targeted social welfare entitlements, validating their existing skills through a recognition of prior learning (RPL) certification, and facilitating non-exploitative working environments via ethical micro-contractors who are also participating in the study. 

The study has four key objectives:
  1. Estimate the prevalence of forced labor and exploitation within the Bundelkhand-Delhi NCR construction migration corridor; 
  2. Identify key vulnerability indicators associated with forced labor among domestic migrant workers in the construction industry;
  3. Determine the effectiveness of project interventions aimed at protecting workers’ rights and safeguarding against forced labor and exploitation risks; 
  4. Facilitate real-time victim identification and assistance to at-risk workers.

Through regular surveys of participants, the project has been able to identify and refer 670 at-risk workers to the Fund’s in-country partners for follow-up, and over 1,700 migrant workers have voluntarily called into a local helpline. For these callers and the at-risk workers, Jan Sahas, a member of the NEEV consortium, has been investigating cases of forced labor, and, where appropriate, preparing complaints and liaising with government authorities to ensure that exploited workers are rescued. Jan Sahas has also been providing post-rescue support to survivors in the form of legal assistance to file criminal cases, assistance with wage recovery, and connections to rehabilitation services. So far, Jan Sahas has facilitated the rescue and release of 185 migrant workers from situations of bonded labor, provided legal assistance to migrant workers to file 29 criminal cases and 432 civil cases, and supported over 2,500 exploited workers with wage recovery and arbitration.

The project has been able to identify and refer 670 at-risk workers to the Fund’s in-country partners for follow-up, and over 1,700 migrant workers have voluntarily called in to the helpline.

Ongoing analysis of worker responses has revealed a statistically significant correlation between the use of labor brokers and indicators of forced labor and exploitation. Furthermore, workers who are women, who have lower education levels, lower wages, or are from lower castes are more vulnerable. In addition, there is a positive correlation between debt and forced labor in the construction sector. Consolidated findings on vulnerability characteristics of workers, prevalence estimates of forced labor in the construction industry, and the assessed viability of the three implemented interventions will be disseminated to key government and private sector stakeholders in India to enable them to better target migrant worker-focused programming for modern slavery reduction, and to ensure these key actors have a greater understanding of, and alignment on, the scale and drivers of worker exploitation in the construction sector.

GFEMS looks forward sharing more about to the ongoing LMT study. Subscribe to our newsletter and follow us on Twitter and LinkedIn for updates on the latest developments, news, and opportunities with GFEMS. 

One half of survey participants reported having no monthly household income.

Understanding the Effect of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Migrant Construction Workers in India

This briefing presents the results of a survey conducted with migrant workers in the construction sector aimed at assessing the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic and related lockdown measures on their lives, jobs, and personal well-being. By developing a better understanding of the changes in the vulnerabilities of migrant construction workers due to COVID-19, learnings from this research can help identify gaps in current pandemic-specific policies and service delivery, as well as inform the implementation of construction worker focused programming for government and private sector stakeholders. The study was conducted via telephone interviews over a 3-month period, resulting in 10,464 completed responses from a pool of construction workers who migrated from the Bundelkhand region to Delhi NCR.

Select Key Findings:

  • 95% of workers surveyed reported having a job in construction prior to March 2020, compared to only one-third as of August 2020, indicating a 65% decrease in the number of participants employed in the construction sector during the pandemic
  • As of this study’s conclusion, 52% of — or one out of every two —participants did not have a monthly household income, compared to only 1% of participants prior to the COVID-19 lockdown, suggesting the pandemic significantly affected the livelihoods of participants.
  • Of the migrant construction workers surveyed, 58% were unaware of the welfare schemes and benefits they were entitled to receive, and a further 27% were unable to receive benefits despite having the necessary documents.
For more key findings and insights on implications of this information, download the full briefing.

TERA Project Launches ‘Profitable Ethical Recruitment’ and ‘Be Compliant’ Toolkit

TERA Project Launches ‘Profitable Ethical Recruitment’ and ‘Be Compliant’ Toolkit

Between a global pandemic and fierce industry competition, engineering and construction businesses are facing critical challenges that threaten their futures. A new research study from The Ethical Recruitment Agency (TERA), funded by GFEMS, offers solutions. By embracing disruptive technologies, building strong relationships with prime contractors, and adopting modern labor policies, companies can win new business and strengthen their workforce.

Accompanying the report, TERA has also launched it’s “Be Compliant” package. It includes:

  • A pull-out that review the practical steps companies can take, such as ethical recruitment services and innovative management techniques
  • An online calculator that models corporate investments and gains from adopting ethical business practices.

The report is available in English and in Arabic.

The TERA project, part of the Fund’s ethical recruitment portfolio, launched in summer 2020. It aims to provide safe work opportunities abroad to vulnerable communities in Uttar Pradesh, India. TERA India will operationalize systems for monitoring worker welfare, test the viability of an ethical recruitment agency in UP, and provide targeted support to low-skilled workers across multiple industries, including domestic workers, cleaners, and construction workers. In addition, TERA India will engage with the broader community of people vulnerable to modern slavery, including aspiring migrants who are unskilled, poor, and new to the migration process, to enhance understanding of and access to ethical recruitment opportunities.

Learn more about the Fund’s support for TERA and why we invest in ethical recruitment.

To stay updated on this project, and projects like it, subscribe to the GFEMS newsletter and follow us on Twitter.