Delhi Games workers recount accident amid the rush

By Penny MacRae (AFP)

NEW DELHI — One minute Mohammed Meswaddin was stringing lights along a triumphal arch leading to New Delhi's showpiece Commonwealth Games stadium as workers raced to finish the work.

The next minute he was flat on his back, his body pinned by steel
as part of the walkway meant to transport VIPs and athletes to the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium for the multinational sporting event collapsed.

"There was a terrible cracking sound and I fell," Meswaddin, a migrant worker from impoverished eastern Bihar state, told AFP from his government hospital bed, recalling Tuesday's accident.

The father of seven, who suffered a broken leg and back injuries, has been told by doctors he must stay in hospital for at least three months. Another 26 of his co-workers were also hospitalised after the accident.

According to government figures, 42 workers have been killed on Commonwealth Games sites where there is a frenzied rush to complete the work in time for the event's opening in just over a week.

Worker safety rules have always been lax on Indian building sites with reports of workplace accidents a common feature in newspapers.

But with preparations running very late, safety has taken even more of a back seat for the hundreds of thousands of mostly migrant workers who have toiled to build the stadiums, the athletes' village and related infrastructure, unions say.

"India won the games in 2003, but only started working on them at the beginning of 2008," Rajeev Sharma, project manager of the Building and Woodworkers' International in India, told AFP.

"When things are running so much behind schedule, things are being rushed and quality, safety, all these things are compromised -- everyone is thinking about the deadline," Sharma said.

Some construction hard hats can be seen on games building sites but most workers wear a simple triangle of cloth to protect themselves from the heat and the dust.

"None of us had any boots, gloves, goggles or helmets or other safety gear," said 20-year-old Mohammed Phool, also from Bihar, who was on the bridge when it collapsed last Tuesday.

His face is a mess of bloody bruises and his arm is broken.

Commonwealth Games officials declined to be interviewed about the accident.

Most of the Commonwealth Games workers are being paid below the minimum wage which is 203 rupees (4.50 dollars) a day for unskilled labour and 248 rupees for skilled labour, Building and Woodworkers' International says.

On top of the poor safety conditions, unions say the living conditions for the imported manpower has been dreadful.

Labourers live in plastic tents or in huts made of galvanized iron sheets in which they have baked in India's searing summer heat and been soaked by the lashing monsoon rains that have drenched the capital in recent months.

There are no toilets, illness is rife and drinking water comes from pipes around the city.

Many migrant workers have brought their children, who can often be seen playing in the building rubble on Delhi's streets.

A Delhi High Court committee in February condemned the "appalling" living conditions and lack of sanitation provided for workers.

"They are situations in which no one should have to live," said Amjad Hassan, general secretary of the Delhi Asangthit Nirman Mazdoor Union (Delhi Unorganised Workers' Union).

There was no sick leave and in many cases workers received no weekly day off, according to the high court investigation.

Sharma has only one wish -- that countries chosen to stage future Commonwealth Games be forced to adhere to "core labour standards."

The union and its 35 affiliates have signed a petition urging the Commonwealth Games Federation to "include the honouring of Core Labour Standards as a requisite condition in awarding of games to any member country." The Commonwealth Games Federation's "principles of humanity, equality and destiny should not just be confined to the games alone but also to the workers," Sharma said.