How BOCW Boards Were Used To Help Unorganised Workers In Pandemic And What Issues Remain

States and union territories disbursed cash through direct bank transfers and rations to unorganised sector workers through BOCW Welfare Boards.

How BOCW Boards Were Used To Help Unorganised Workers In Pandemic And What Issues Remain

The Union government in March 2020 issued an advisory to all states and union territories to use funds with their Building and Other Construction Worker (BOCW) Welfare Boards to help people engaged in the unorganised sector.

The states had around Rs 52,000 crore in funds at the time with about 3.5 crore registered construction workers, as per the advisory.

In a press release issued in June 2020, the Union Labour Ministry said the states disbursed Rs 4,957 crore in cash assistance to around 2 crore registered construction workers. Around 1.75 crore transactions were done directly into the bank accounts of workers. 

“Apart from cash benefits ranging from Rs 1,000 to Rs 6,000 per worker during the lockdown, some of the states have also provided food and ration to their workers,” said the ministry in the press release. 

Here we will explore what these BOCW boards are, how they are used and can be used for workers’ welfare and what are their shortcomings.

What are BOCW Welfare Boards?

The Building and Other Construction Workers (BOCW) Act, 1996, governs construction activities and mandates a Building and Other Construction Workers Welfare Board in every state. These boards run on a cess that is 1 per cent of a construction project’s total cost.

Workers registered with the board are issued an identity card, which is like a passbook of sorts that carries their identification and employment details. It is commonly called the “labour card”. BOCW boards offer a range of benefits such as health and life insurance; financial aid for marriage, pregnancy and motherhood; old-age pension, etc.

What are shortcomings with BOCW Welfare Boards?

There are three main barriers to effective utilisation of BOCW boards. 

One, a large section of workers is not registered with these boards, either because of a lack of awareness or laxity on their part. To address this, Delhi and Uttar Pradesh organised registration drives through the pandemic to increase the ambit of coverage of welfare boards.

In Uttar Pradesh, the number of approved registrations increased to 1,66,42,566 in May 2022 from 55,17,315 in March 2020 – more than a three-fold increase. Reports from 2021 stated that Delhi had around 6 lakh registered workers, up from around 5.5 lakh reported in 2019-20 – the last year for which figures are available on its website. 

Two, there is a requirement that a worker needs to work in a state for a minimum of 90 days to avail any benefit. As construction work can be migratory in nature, it might not always be the case that a worker clocks 90 days in a state as their work might take them across states.

Three, the process to claim benefits is different across states and it can get complicated for workers. An article in India Development Review notes, “In Haryana, one can apply for most claim schemes after a year of being registered, while in Uttar Pradesh, one can start applying for claim schemes two months after being registered. 

“Scheme names, their benefits, and document requirements also vary for each scheme and state. This means that even after registration, workers need to provide a set of documents to apply for and benefit from schemes.” 

What do experts and activists say?

Experts and activists have long called for a pan-India labour card that does away with the requirement of working for at least 90 days in a state to get any benefit.

Activists have also called for a greater association of unorganised workers with unions and non-governmental organisations working for them, which would help them get labour cards and help them mobilise for their issues.

Experts have also called for simplification of registration, renewal, and other processes, along with streamlining of norms across states.

The IDR article cited above noted, “The Centre needs to take an active role in streamlining the implementation of the BOCW Act across states. Considering the mobile nature of the workforce, it would be easier if the same BOCW card is applicable in all states. This would help workers to avail scheme benefits faster.”  

Welfare measures beyond construction sector workers

While BOCW boards can be effective, their coverage is limited to people engaged in one section of unorganised workers.

Recognising this, Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot last month announced a labour welfare board for workers in the unorganised sector other than those covered by the BOCW welfare board. 

In August 2021, the Union government also created the e-SHRAM portal to make an Aadhar-linked database of all unorganised sector workers.

The website states, “It will have details of name, occupation, address, occupation type, educational qualification, skill types and family details etc. for optimum realisation of their employability and extend the benefits of the social security schemes to them. It is the first-ever national database of unorganised workers including migrant workers, construction workers, gig and platform workers, etc.”


The platform currently has over 27 crore registered workers.