VIDEO: STL Tradeswoman Connects With Counterparts in India

By on March 24, 2017

by Tom Finan, Executive Director, Construction Forum STL

In India, construction tradeswomen comprise about three percent of the total population — a number similar in proportion to the women in nursing in the United States. They also occupy the lowest positions on the pecking order.

They frequently bring their children to the jobsite, where the kids play and wander around in sites that are bereft of barriers or any of the protections known in this country. Often whole families, men and women, work alongside one another.

These are a few of the eye openers that Beth Barton, superintendent at Tarlton and president of Missouri Women in Trades (MOWIT) encountered as part of a delegation of women in the trades to India in January. Barton gave a presentation on the experience Wednesday evening at the Construction Forum STL offices. The video accompanying this article includes her complete presentation.

Barton is passionate about supporting other women in the construction trades. She was recognized by Construction Forum STL in 2016 with a “Building Tomorrow Award” for workforce development.Barton traveled to India in  a group of tradeswomen led by Fulbright recipient Susan Moir, Ph.D., director of research for the Labor Resource Center at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

Moir worked in the blue collar industry for 20 years before shifting to policy and advocacy. For the past eight years, she has helped lead the Boston Policy Group on Tradeswomen’s Issues, which wants to see women as 20 percent of the construction workforce by 2020.

“People ask, ‘Why did you go to India?,’ Barton said. “Well, critical mass. In India, almost 40 percent of their workforce in construction is female. Here, according to the Department of Labor, 2.6 percent of the workforce is female.” Barton said that one conference participant estimated the female component of the Indian construction workforce at 40 million, or three percent of the Indian population.

“The basic principle of this whole thing is organizing. We are better together. The goal is to set the stage for an international network of tradeswomen — made by tradeswomen, for tradeswomen.”

“As soon as I heard that, I was all over it,” Barton said. She applied for the trip before she even figured out how she was going to pay for it. Barton was one of 14 women selected (one man also went on the trip).

The women on the trip were treated royally as they traveled throughout India. They participated in “Building Bridges 2017: The International Tradeswomen’s Conference,” held at the VV. Giri National Labour Institute. They were welcomed by  the director of the institute, a position similar to the U.S. Secretary of Labor. Barton presented at the conference on the work of MOWIT.

The delegation traveled throughout India. In India there are “formal” and “informal” job sites. The “formal” sites — typically government projects — have protective measures in place similar to what would be seen on U.S. projects. “Informal” sites (Barton said there is construction going on everywhere one looks) are typically absent of any degree of regulation or personal protection.

The informal sites are the only sites on which women are allowed to work. They typically are wearing saris and flip flops, or are barefoot. Babies are carried in slings on their mothers’ backs so they don’t get injured on the jobsite. Older children are often under the care of a grandmother, also on site, or are left to fend for themselves amidst the construction work.

The delegation wanted to talk to some women workers so they invited them onto their bus. “Do you have work for us?,” the women asked, Barton said. The U.S. women paid each woman a day’s wages of 500 rupees (about $8). The way that workers are employed for construction on informal sites, Barton said, is to gather in open spaces designated for day laborers. She likened the practice to what happened in this country at the beginning of the 20th century.

Not-So-Funny Money

While the delegation was in India the country Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that 500 and 1,000 rupee banknotes would be withdrawn from circulation immediately, saying it was part of a crackdown on rampant corruption and counterfeit currency.

India is hampered by so-called black money that is undeclared, untaxed or under the table. The unexpected step appeared designed to bring billions of dollars worth of cash in unaccounted wealth into the mainstream economy, as well as hit the finances of Islamist militants who target India and are suspected of using fake 500 rupee notes to fund operations.

But the net effect on the ground created chaos in a country where everything from weddings to construction materials and labor are paid for in cash. The goal was admirable — eliminating bills from the marketplace that are frequently used to cover crimes — but the result  was catastrophic. Cranes were dismantled and construction projects screeched to a halt.

As it is, the lower levels of Indian construction workers, including women, are frequently told that the boss will “hold” their money until the end of the month, “because you’d just spend it on drinking anyway.”  With no records and everything in cash the workers are then cheated of their money.

Barton said that on “formal” construction sites workers are entitled to pay if they are laid off, but the workers are frequently illiterate and don’t know how to apply for the pay.

Touching the Untouchables

Barton marveled at the diversity of India. She said that on a given street corner there might be Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Buddhists, all interacting with one another. So she and her fellow delegation members were taken aback when they witnessed discrimination Indian-style.

To download Beth Barton’s PowerPoint of her presentation “Building Bridges: Lessons From India,” click here.

Barton’s favorite portion of the entire trip was the group’s “slum tour,” where the women got to meet and interact with women workers in the slums where they lived. The guide for the tour was  of the Dalit “untouchable” caste and the bus driver was a Brahmin (highest caste, typically priests and teachers).

India’s caste system is among the world’s oldest forms of surviving social stratification. The system which divides Hindus into rigid hierarchical groups based on their karma (work) and dharma (the Hindi word for religion, but here it means duty). People cannot change their caste. Hindus believe that if a person lives a good life in the caste they are born into, when they die they will be reincarnated into a higher caste.

Barton said that when the bus driver somehow discerned that the guide was a Dalit, he refused to take the group where they wanted to go. Barton and her fellow delegation members could not see any physical difference (other than their sex) in the two people.

Her takeaway: Discrimination has nothing to with the way a person looks. It is something that one person imposes on another person.

About Tom Finan