Ideas & Debate

Construction workers need pension, medical cover plan

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Workers at a construction site. FILE PHOTO | NMG

Summary

  • The pandemic has exposed the underbelly of the welfare of construction workers in the country.
  • The construction industry, a huge contributor to any country’s GDP, is one of the most sensitive to economic shocks.
  • To gauge the performance of an economy, one needs to look at how the construction sector is doing.
  • Cement consumption is usually a key indicator, with high consumption pointing to a performing economy and a low consumption the opposite.

In the tenth year since the promulgation of the 2010 constitution, Covid-19 struck. The effects of the pandemic, both locally and globally have been ravaging.

The pandemic has exposed the underbelly of the welfare of construction workers in the country.

The construction industry, a huge contributor to any country’s GDP, is one of the most sensitive to economic shocks.

To gauge the performance of an economy, one needs to look at how the construction sector is doing. Cement consumption is usually a key indicator, with high consumption pointing to a performing economy and a low consumption the opposite.

Latest statistics indicate that cement consumption in Kenya did not stutter in the period within which the Covid-19 pandemic containment measures were wreaking havoc on the country’s economic productivity.

If anything the consumption for this year’s first seven months has risen by 4.5 percent to 3.59 million tonnes in the period from 3.44 million tonnes posted in a similar period last year.

This clearly suggests that despite business shutdowns, cross-border lockdowns and the curfew, the construction sector still held on. Where did this resilience come from this time around?

The high levels of risks posed by the virus led to the government instituting measures meant to contain the spread of the virus. Schools and businesses shut down completely.

Places of worship and entertainment spots as well. Major public gatherings, including sports events, university graduations and political rallies, were frozen, with most of them finding a home in the virtual spaces. Even with all these measures, construction sites in the country never really shut down.

Those, which did, did so out of an abundance of caution and convenience, but not as a government directive. In the midst of rising infections, deaths and isolation reports, everything remained constant in construction.

There emerges, therein, questions over the level of concern for the welfare and wellbeing of the workers engaged in construction activity in the country.

For a section of the population doomed to earning the lowest possible wages, construction workers are exposed to immense risks. Most labourers at these construction sites are at their prime. They are young, strong and full of vigour. Many of them operate as casual workers with daily or weekly wages as compensation for their labour. It is painful to note that after years of hard labour and toiling, many of these workers end up being destitute. Many, in their latter years, suffer from respiratory conditions, ear damages or other injuries (sometimes fatal) sustained in the course of their work.

The Occupation Safety and Health Act does provide for some level of protection for these workers, but this is not guaranteed. Those who are fortunate get some level of compensation upon having escalated these issues to higher legal authorities.

Those are the more informed. A majority let up, at the first indications of reduced productivity. They go home, with no pension, no health cover and no retirement package.

During these trying Covid-19 pandemic times, the National Construction Authority (NCA) did try to apply the social distancing measures on construction sites. This has proven to be a near impossibility as the labour-intensive nature of construction works hardly allows for such. The workers themselves would rather contract the virus than lose their daily wage.

Most of these workers live in the slum areas. These areas lack basic facilities such as running water, placing these populations at risk of spreading the virus should it strike one of the members of their households. Due to the poor housing conditions, these same workers emerge from single-room houses, which they occupy with their whole families. The risks are so high.

At the end of the day, we realise that the country’s most vulnerable section of the population is still the least paid and also the one blatantly ignored in the country’s social security plans.

Schemes such as the National Hospital Insurance Fund (NHIF) and the National Social Security Fund (NSSF), though allowing self-employed people to remit payments, don’t put responsibility on consumers of casual labour — mostly building contractors — to safeguard the welfare of their workers.

The NCA has been on a frenzied drive to register labourers within the construction sector. As it does so, it ought to institute some kind of scheme to ensure that this cadre of Kenyans can access medical cover and later enjoy pension in retirement.

Ndolo is a construction professional