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A Commonwealth shame?

Soutik Biswas | 15:34 UK time, Monday, 22 March 2010

A child of a worker sleeps on a Delhi road near a Commonwealth Games siteI have just finished reading a 116-page report by a committee appointed by the Delhi high court on the "condition of workers" engaged in construction work on Commonwealth Games sites in the Indian capital. The October Games, on which the government is spending more than $2bn, is the biggest international sporting event India has ever hosted.

The report is shocking. It confirms Delhi's worst kept secret - how the shiny new stadia and other infrastructure hide the exploitative and unsafe conditions that 150,000 workers have to work under. My colleagues who have ventured out to report the story have come back with tales of workers cowering in fear and refusing to talk, and contractors who hire them refusing to meet for interviews.

Frightening details emerge from separate reports filed by human rights groups to the high court. Tariq Adeeb of the respected Human Rights Law Network tells me that independent investigations have found that more than 70 workers have been killed in accidents at the sites since work began. In reports submitted to the court, groups talk about 48 workers dying in accidents. The court-appointed committee found that at the Games village alone, four workers had died in accidents and one woman worker had died in a fire.

"Accidents are taking place causing injury resulting in death and disablement - both temporary and permanent," the report for the court says. The committee investigated 10 Games sites.

Most of the workers at the building and construction sites come from outside Delhi - mainly Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal, Jharkhand, Rajasthan, Bihar and Orissa states.

"These workers, says the report, "are being made to work in harsh and unsafe conditions without basic amenities from the employers concerned."

Recruiting agents who hire migrant workers are required to obtain a licence from the authorities from the originating state. The report found that the majority of agents did not have licences. The workers are entitled to a "displacement allowance", but almost nobody has been paid it.

The report says the minimum daily wages are not being paid to all workers - the minimum daily wage for unskilled workers in Delhi is 151 rupees ($3.30), while the committee found workers on most Games sites are being paid on average 114 rupees ($2.50).

In many cases, the report says, the workers were not receiving overtime. And when they were getting it, they were being paid at the standard rate, not the statutory double time.A worker at a Commonwealth Games stadium under construction in Delhi

The exploitation of labour doesn't appear to end here - the report says the workers are never given a weekly day off with wages. They have no proof of employment as no wages slips are being issued.

A separate study by a rights group covering 702 workers at 15 key sites found that workers were not given leave even if they fell sick, and medical leave was granted only in 30% of cases. Most sites have little or no medical facilities.

Workers' safety - as I wrote here some months ago - is also apparently being widely flouted. Workers do not wear boots or gloves at many sites. "There were reports of accidents at almost every site, but the same could not be verified," the report says. Most of these accidents were not reported to the authorities.

The report has strongly criticised the living conditions of the workers. "Lack of overall hygiene, environmental sanitation and cleanliness was deplorable," the report said. Many of the workers "were living in rooms, often without doors, without protection during winter, without electricity and without toilets".

It found a bias against hiring women workers - there was only one crèche found at the Games village site - and that women were being paid less than men.

The court report says the agencies - government bodies, contractors, recruiting agents - involved in the construction refuse to take responsibility for such appalling work conditions and wage violations. Rights groups say the report is a damning indictment of the way government and private contractors treat workers and that it also confirms how they have made a mockery of India's labour and wage laws.

None of the Commonwealth Games officials, including the chairman of the organising committee, Suresh Kalmadi, took my calls when I tried to reach them for their reaction to the report. VK Gupta, a senior engineer of the CPWD, one of the government agencies involved in the construction work has said the violations are "isolated cases." Michael Hooper, chief executive of the London-based Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF), was more forthright saying "there is no excuse for flouting the law".

"India has laws to protect the lives and safety of its workers. Obviously there is no excuse for any employer or agency to break these laws," he told the BBC.

"The contractor and hiring agencies at the Commonwealth Games should make sure the laws are adhered to. I fully back the recommendations of the court to have a monitoring group to be put in place to ensure violations dont happen."

When I asked him whether this was a big embarassment for the Games, Mr Hooper said: "This [kind of violation] is not unique to India. These violations, unfortunately, happen all over the word."

But what I find particularly galling is the silence of political parties on the state of workers. The local Hindu nationalist BJP has made an issue about the proposed serving of beef to guests at the Games. The Congress-led Delhi government is going to town with a planned "good manners" campaign, imploring the city's people to behave properly during the Games. The parties of the Left are silent. All this even as the government cleared nearly 700 million rupees in extra funds for the Games, taking its bloated budget to more than $2bn.

Athletes from 85 countries arrive in Delhi in October to participate in the 19th Games, which are supposed to showcase India's ability to host an international event. Human rights groups say it's a sham - and what was supposed to be a matter of national pride is fast beginning to look like a national shame.


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