Reaching out to migrant construction workers in India

Article | 01 January 2009

Nirman Mazdoor Sanghtna, a trade union, takes up a project in collaboration with ILO

The project, fist of its kind involving a trade union, attempted to demonstrate value addition of a union-led intervention on HIV and AIDS.

Meena, 28 and Shanti, 26 are two sisters (names changed) from Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh. They got married to two brothers, who worked as construction workers in Maharashtra. Today, both of them are widows and living with HIV. “My husband died of AIDS in 2002. I have two children; one of them is also HIV positive. I need work to support my children. I want to educate them as much as I can,” shares Meena. “After my husband’s death, I started working in a women’s hostel as a cook. My supervisor came to know of my status and sacked me. Now, I work as a house maid. I am on Anti Retroviral Treatment for the last six months,” shares Shanti. Meena and Shanti are associated with the NMS project as peer educators. Madhukant Pathariya, President, NMS says, “Our greatest satisfaction is that we have been able to facilitate government’s health and welfare services to workers, including Anti Retroviral Treatment for five in a short time. This would not have been possible but for this ILO project.”

Before starting the intervention, ILO conducted a study in 2008 in Panvel, Maharashtra. The study revealed a high HIV risk among migrant construction workers. 25% workers reported having unprotected sex with sex workers, and low/inconsistent condom use. Evidence of women facing sexual harassment and also working as part time sex workers either due to force or compulsions in situations when they fail to get daily work, was also found.

Nirman Mazdoor Sanghtna attempts to organize construction workers, and improve their conditions of employment, welfare social security and enhance access to health care. This intervention is reaching out to 10,000 construction workers and their families in six nakas (market place), three bastis workers communities) and six construction sites. Prevention strategies include behaviour change communication, condom promotion and management of sexually transmitted infections along with improving access to care and support services through referral network in collaboration with the Maharashtra State AIDS Control Society. NMS has formed workers’ committees. Together with these committees and through peer education sessions, construction workers receive comprehensive training on HIV prevention, treatment, care and support. NMS has registered workers in the government social security schemes, and increased their access to HIV services. Employers are sensitized and mobilized to ensure a healthy work environment and allow peer-education activities on-site. The NMS committees help workers for reducing exploitation by contractors, getting compensation in case of accidents, and ensuring that workers get their wages on time. Naka committees offer useful employment services to workers, registers workers, issues them identity cards and enrolls them under the Labour department’s Janshree Bima insurance scheme. NMS has a team of ten outreach workers, two of them are themselves with HIV.

“We assure contractors that we don’t want to do unionization of workers at sites. This will affect our work adversely. We take the health and welfare approach. This makes contractors comfortable. We were also able to get their contribution in organizing health camps,” adds Madhukant. “I get around 400 people here every month. About 20% of them are migrant workers. I also give condoms to the NMS staff for distribution”, says Awasarmal, Counsellor at Integrated Counselling and Testing Centre in Panvel. Condom education and distribution is a regular feature involving local shops and peer educators. Rupesh Verma, who himself is a young migrant worker from Rajasthan, runs a small tea shop at a construction site. He is one of the peer educators and keeps a box of condom at his shop. “I distribute up to 100 condoms every month, and workers can take it from me any time. My shop is open till about 10 PM and I also live here”, says Rupesh.

Lessons learned:

Trade unions are well placed to provide comprehensive and rights-based HIV and AIDS intervention amongst migrant workers. Key lessons are:

  • Unions can facilitate access of workers to public health schemes, government insurance and welfare schemes of the labour department.
  • Engaging people living with HIV as field staff is a very effective strategy.
  • Unions can facilitate workers getting compensation from contractors in case of accidents.
  • It takes time and consistent effort but unions can get employer’s/ contractor’s contribution in project’s activities.
  • HIV intervention also helps unions to organize the unorganized workers.
  • Strong capacity building effort is needed for unions in the initial years but they can play a major role in national HIV/AIDS response.

A documentation of Good Practices:

Prevention of HIV/AIDS in the World of Work: A Tripartite Response