Print Edition - 2014-09-13  |  On Saturday

A daily living

  • The labourers who work daily-wage jobs in Kathmandu can make some pretty decent money, but they do so without the benefit of the kind of safety net that protects workers of the regulated job sectors
- Anup Ojha
A daily living

Sep 12, 2014-

Sita Thakuri, 68, sits puffing a Pilot cigarette in the premises of the Ganesh temple, near the over-head bridge that links Aason and Ratnapark. Milling around her spot are hordes of other people like her, eagerly waiting to be picked by contractors: they are all here in search of a day’s worth of work they can sign up for.

Crammed between the unremitting flow of traffic and the never-ending march of pedestrians, these labourers try their luck here everyday. The crowd is thickest between 8 am and 9am—the prime-time when employers are looking to hire manpower for after-lunch duties—when the milieu gets so chaotic that the drivers of the vehicles plying the road nearby have to resort to rapid-fire, staccato honking to make their way past the labourers who often spill onto the road.

The crowd is made up of motley mix: young teenagers and old people; workers from the Valley’s periphery and those from places as far afield as West Bengal and Bihar. As they play the waiting game, many in the crowd crack jokes or make small talk, even as they try to make eye contact with potential employers weaving through the crowd.

For a decade now, Ratnapark has been a hub of sorts for low-wage temporary workers, and their numbers keep increasing by the day. Besides Ratnapark, such workers also congregate in spots in Koteshwor, Gwarko, Satdobato, Mahalaxmisthan, Kalanki, Maitidevi, Chabahil and New Buspark.  According to the police beat in Ratnapark, the number of labourers for the area exceeds 1,000 per day and that figure gets even higher during major festivals like Dashain and Tihar—when workers get scarcer in the Valley.

Thakuri, who is originally from Janakpur, and lives in Dallu, Kathmandu, is here every day by 7:30 in the morning. She usually returns home around noon if she can’t find any work, but if she is fortunate enough to find work, she earns on average Rs 600 a day.

Thakuri is willing to take on all kinds of work—from gardening to cleaning houses to hauling bricks. She has been a daily-wage labourer for more than a decade now, and uses her earnings to provide for her two grandchildren. According to her, both her son and daughter-in-law are daily-wage labourers too.

The labourers who gather here can be loosely classified into three different categories: those who are jobless despite being literate; illiterate skilled workers, and those who are completely new to the city and are looking to make a quick buck. The better-skilled personnel versed in works like carpentry, plumbing or masonry can even earn up to Rs 1,500 per day, while those without any skills can make a minimum of Rs 600 a day. Many of them have been coming here for so long that they are familiar with each other and have formed their own circles of friends. When they get here, if they get picked by a contractor, they will sometimes be transported to their workplace, although most often,the contractor just gives them the address of their worksite.

And then there are those like Krishna Thakuri, 46, who have been able to up the wage-rates they can demand on account of their experience and the skills honed on the job.

Krishna Thakuri is illiterate but because he is adept at everything from masonry and carpentry to painting and welding, he earns close to Rs 30,000 a month. The money that he makes off this informal economy is enough to pay the tuition for his son, who is a student at a Plus-Two Management programme in Kathmandu, while his two daughters attend a boarding school.

And for some, the work they find when they come here allows them another crack at making a living after having quit other jobs. For six months, Shyam Tamang has been coming to the area every day, and when he finds work, he works for six to eight hours a day.  A plus-two Commerce graduate from Sindhupalchok, Tamang came here when he learned that his uncle was doing pretty well for himself. “It’s been seven years since I came to Kathmandu, but wherever I worked, I wasn’t paid very well,” says Tamang. Before finding his way to Ratnapark, he worked in a printing press, where eight hours of daily labour only paid Rs 5,000 a month. “The money I made at my previous job was never enough for my daily expenses,” says Tamang. Now, when times are good, he can earn upwards of Rs 18,000 per month. “Working just 12 days a month is enough to meet my expenses,” adds Tamang, who is not very particular regarding the jobs he picks. These days, he even sends money back home.    

But because these labourers work in an unregulated sector, they are working a risky market. Sometimes the contactors do not pay them after they have completed their assignment.  Thakuri knows all too well about such problems. He still has to get the Rs 20,000 he is owed by an employer in Kirtipur. “I worked for 12 days at a construction site. But once the job was done, the contactor absconded without paying me.  When I approached him, he asked me to come back again the next day. I have already been to his place 17 times, but he has paid me only Rs 1,400 till date,” says Krishna Thakuri. “I even complained to police in Kirtipur, but they demanded half the amount I was owed, for resolving the matter. If I were to take the case to court, it would only complicate things, and I would have to spend more money than I will be able to retrieve,” he says.

During desperate times in the past, the workers have thought about either joining or forming a union, but so far that too has been an exercise in futility. “Many times in the past, people have come here and told us that they would help create a union for our rights and protection. We even gave them Rs 100 each, but they ran away with the money,” says Krishna Thakuri.

With so many Nepali labourers heading abroad, Kathmandu certainly needs these temporary workers to build the city’s houses, maintain the roads and so on, but they too need some assurances in return. Nara Nath Luitel, president of the Central Union of Painters, Plumbers, Electro and Construction Workers Nepal, says his union has been working to bring these labourers into its fold. “We are doing our due diligence to bring all these workers under an umbrella organisation that will look out for their interests and help them when they have to deal with unscrupulous employers,” says Luitel.

Published: 13-09-2014 08:48

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