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What migrant labourers say in lockdown: work can wait, family cannot

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April 15, 2020

Even as the government has sought to revive economic activity in a phased manner, stranded are sceptical about staying on. With uncertainty looming large over the trajectory of the deadly in the coming days, they are eager to return home.

“I want to see my wife and kids. I want to return home. Work can wait,” says 45-year-old construction worker Parshuram Thakur, who works in Bengaluru. Thakur, whose native place is in Bihar, has a wife, two daughters, and a son — all dependents.

After staying in Bihar for two months with his family, Thakur had returned to city life for work in January where he earns Rs 9,600 a month. Thakur says though he received his share of daily wages for the pre-work and is getting food, his family is on top of his mind. “In Bihar, the disease (Covid-19) cases are fewer. It’s spreading quickly in cities. I will return later. Right now, I want to be with my family,” he said. Anyhow, Thakur will have to wait longer to resume his job as most construction cites where he was employed were within city limits, which will remain out of bounds for work.

Over the past few days, the restlessness of spilled on to the streets in major cities, including Mumbai, New Delhi, and Surat. While in Mumbai, thousands of workers reached the Bandra railway station after becoming a victim of misinformation that train services had resumed on Tuesday, in Surat and Delhi, there were visuals of social unrest due to complaints of lack of basic facilities, like food and proper space, to the migrants in the past few days. Hundreds of migrants were living on the banks of the Yamuna in the national Capital after two shelter camps were set ablaze allegedly by inmates due to food shortage.

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Julfikar Molla, who migrated from West Bengal to work in Tiruppur in Tamil Nadu, an export hub of garments, has been left high and dry due to the government’s mixed signals related to the measures.

On March 21, when his employer informed him that he should immediately think of returning home, Molla booked a train ticket for March 24. But on March 22, the Indian Railways announced cancelling all train bookings, for the period between March 23 and March 31. He then booked a ticket for April 7, but on March 25, the Railways extended the cancellation of all trains till April 14. Molla booked another ticket, this time for April 17, but he received a text message on Tuesday that the train would no longer depart as the has been extended.

Police stops migrant workers gathered in large number demanding to go back to their native places after the announcement of nationwide lockdown got extended. Photo: PTI

Police stops gathered in large number demanding to go back to their native places after the announcement of nationwide lockdown got extended. Photo: PTI

Molla lives in a locality near Tirupur with 300 other migrant workers — most of them either from West Bengal or Bihar. “Dil me ghabrahat ho rahi hai, parivar waale ro rahein hain (my heart is pounding out of anxiety. My family is crying out of worry),” said Molla.

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Though he received his past salary dues (Rs 300 per day), the garment factory where he works hasn’t paid the salary for the duration of the lockdown, despite the Centre’s orders (dated March 29) to not deduct wages during this period.

Molla, who lives with four other workers in a single room, says he has so far received ration only twice: The first one came four-five days after the nationwide lockdown and the second one, a few days ago. Each worker got 2 kilos of rice, 100 grams of oil, and 100 grams of pulses. He said the employer checked on him only once since the lockdown.

“I had dialled up the West Bengal government helpline narrating our state of affairs after the lockdown. I received a call from them a couple of days back enquiring after my native place and taking down other details, saying they are trying to make logistical arrangements for migrants,” he added. This has confused Molla further.

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He said even if the garment factory resumes operations, he would want to go back to his hometown and make a living there. “It’s hard to live in such uncertain times,” says Molla.

Research on stranded migrant workers shows they are running out of resources, including ration and cash, and the state governments might not be able to sustain their needs for a longer period of time, given the lockdown has already been extended until May 3.

Most migrant workers say their ration will last less than a day; a whopping 70 per cent didn’t receive cooked food from the state governments, 80 per cent of workers had exhausted all but Rs 300 cash, and close to 90 per cent of the workers didn’t get paid by their employers during the lockdown. This study was conducted by a group of researchers who call themselves Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN) surveying 11,159 workers since March 27. Most of the migrants (79 per cent) were either daily wage or construction workers. “What the lockdown has revealed is the absence of administrative oversight on the contract labour and lack of accountability of both the employers and governments,” said the research by SWAN, titled ‘21 Days and Counting’.

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Sujata Mody, secretary at New Trade Union Initiative, said there was complete lack of empathy from employers and many of the workers were not fully aware of the government’s initiatives in their states, which has left the workers disgruntled.

“The contractors have fled, leaving the hapless workers behind. Some of the employers even told workers the money would be deducted for the ration supplied to them when they return to work. There is total lack of awareness, as there is no channel of proper communication within the relief camps. For instance, in Tamil Nadu, language is a barrier for Hindi-speaking workers, so the government of their native states should ideally be communicating with them,” says Mody.

Days after the lockdown when hundreds of thousands of migrants began their journey from cities to their villages on foot, state governments and non-governmental organisations set up shelter homes to accommodate them to ensure they do not leave. There are around 1.04 million workers residing in 26,476 relief camps (40 people housed in a single camp on average).

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As the government has said that some economic activities would resume from April 20, especially in special economic zones and villages, in a safe manner, bringing back workers who have already left the cities could prove to be a Sisyphean task. For instance, 1.2 million workers were in quarantine centres in Uttar Pradesh after they returned from other places immediately after the lockdown was announced. After 14 days, they will finally be returning home.

Even the homeless workers, who have been living in shelter homes for many years, are fast running out of patience.

“I have been getting rice for three meals. I do not feel like eating any more. I want to return to Bihar to be with my family. At least, I will be able to do some farm-related work, eat, and live peacefully,” 45-year-old Kishan Dev Mukhiya, who lives in a shelter home in Sarai Kale Khan in Delhi, said, tears rolling down his face.

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