Construction labour faces threat from mechanisation, Harish Rao

Construction labour faces threat from mechanisation, Harish Rao

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Harish Rao, Founder, sawdust

Construction labour faces threat from mechanisation -min

Construction labour faces threat from mechanisation -min
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Though the actual numbers vary from source to source there are numerous signals to indicate that construction is one of the major employment generators in the country. However, there are signs of sector losing slowly its premier position as an employment generator. For example, in public sector the number of persons employed by the construction sector has gone down over the years not only in absolute terms but also in real terms

Construction sector is an important part of Indian economy with the sector contributing about 18% of the GDP. It is one of the largest providers of employment in India – only agriculture provides more job than construction industry in the country. However, the exact number of people employed by the sector is hard to get.

The building and other construction workers are registered by the States/UTs through their State Building and Other Construction Workers’ Welfare Board under Section 12 of the Building and Other Construction Workers’ (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1996. As per the information available with the States/ UTs, the approximate number of building and other construction workers registered upto 31.12.2017 is 2,86,15,785. However, the number seems to be understated and actual number must be much more than that. For example, as per estimates of National Sample Survey (2011-2012), there were about 5.02 crore building and other construction workers in the country.

Though the actual numbers vary from source to source there are numerous signals to indicate that construction is one of the major employment generators in the country. However, there are signs of sector losing slowly its premier position as an employment generator. For example, in public sector the number of persons employed by the construction sector has gone down over the years not only in absolute terms but also in real terms.

Employment in construction in Public Sector

Year                   Lakh persons       As a % of total labour

2002-03 9.49                                          5.1

2003-04 9.32                                          5.12

2004-05 9.11                                          5.05

2005-06 8.94                                          5.00

2006-07 8.66                                          4.89

2007-08 8.52                                          4.93

2008-09 8.45                                          4.83

2009-10 8.59                                          4.91

2010-11 8.47                                          4.90

Source : Ministry of Labour and Employment

This may be partly attributed to inaccurate data gathering by the agencies and also partly due to increasing mechanisation taking place in the sector. Few decades ago, hardly any machines were involved in the construction of buildings. Today use of excavators in land leveling and building foundation is a common sight. Use of machines has increased efficiency and has helped to speed up the work at the site. Faster pace of work will ultimately result in lesser project cost.

Development of modern technology also has helped to reduce the dependency on manpower in construction. For example, wall plastering was a specialised job in the past, but now wall plastering machines are available which can do the job faster and better. These machines are increasingly used for construction of multi-storeyed buildings. Similarly, availability of special sealant chemicals has made the task flooring much easier.

Whether implementation of RERA will speed up the process of mechanisation in construction sector? Though it is too early to arrive at any conclusion in this regard, in the medium to long term period, RERA may encourage builders go for increased mechanisation just to save on construction time. RERA has provisions to impose stringent penalties   for any slippages in meeting the completion deadline. Further, builders will be saving in working capital too which would directly impact favourably on their bottomline.

There is no doubt that time is the most important factor for builders and the direct casualty of this is labour. Take the case of Trump Towers in Pune. This project is amongst the first projects in India to utilise Dry Construction Technique (DCT). DCT is nowadays a globally preferred technology as it has benefits like shorter construction timelines, minimum construction waste, better building mechanics, superior sound insulation and fire-protection compared to regular brickwork and masonry, as well as ease of repairs renovation and maintenance.

Innovations taking place around the world too do not bode well for labour market in construction sector. For example, Construction Robotics, the New York-based company, has developed Sam100, a Semi-Autonomous Mason is a robot whose margin of error is now measured in millimetres. This bricklaying robot is currently at work on a handful of building sites across the US. It can apply mortar to any size brick and place one every 8.5 seconds. Whereas a human mason can lay 300-600 bricks in an eight-hour shift, Sam100 can lay more than 3,000. In other words, one robot can replace 5-10 masons! It’s not just the productivity which this robot will improve, it also reduces wastage and increases accuracy. Remember, there is no problem of tea breaks or annual holidays! It seems the government of Saudi Arabia is so impressed by the product that it has already placed order for 100 robots.

However, in India robots taking over construction work may not happen in the foreseeable future because of availability of plenty of cheap labour. Skill India programme has also increased the availability of skilled labour in the industry. Further, maintenance of robots has always been a problem because construction site is exposed to vagaries of seasons and the danger of robot getting damaged frequently is high.

However, increased efficiency and productivity are the two factors which can save the construction labour from the onslaught of mechanisation and robots. Constant skill development is a necessity to remain in business. The government too should help the labour to keep its skill set at the highest level.