Work relaxation amid lockdown fails to convince migrants to stay put

Migrant workers wait to board a special train for Ranchi, in Kozhikode. Photo: PTI
A day after the National Democratic Alliance government announced the new lockdown norms, which will kick in from May 4, a labour contractor of a construction firm in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, swung into action to ensure that work begins on schedule.

The contractor reached out to 250-300 migrant workers living in a residential colony nearby, and told them to move to the construction site of firm Iconic Shyamal, as the new guidelines announced by the Ministry of Home Affairs allowed construction activities in urban areas, provided workers stayed on the premises.

However, most workers refused as they were looking to board trains to return home, rather than go back to their workplace. This is the result of paradoxical policy decisions by the Centre, which have, on the one hand opened up transportation lines, such as buses and trains, to ferry migrant workers back to their villages, while on the other, have eased restrictions on economic activities.

“When we told the contractor that we want to go back home as train services are being resumed, he threatened us saying if we do not report to work, neither will we be allowed to reside in the contractor’s housing colony nor paid the pending wages,” 27-year-old Aehrar Alam, who hails from Bihar, said.

Many workers, who belong to different states such as Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Odisha, residing in the same colony, told Business Standard that they wanted to return to home instead of joining work even if it comes at the cost of their livelihood.

“There is a sense of fear. The contractor got us all tested for coronavirus three times since the middle of April. He hasn’t shown us the reports yet. We want to go back home first before we decide to come back to work,” 33-year-old Aalam said.

M S Unnikrishnan, chairman of the Confederation of Indian Industry’s national committee of industrial relations, said micro, small and medium enterprises, where workers’ income levels were low, might find it difficult to retain workers in the short term. “But once they go back home and things stabilise in about three months, they will come back,” Unnikrishnan said. He added that industries will have to incentivise workers to stay back by offering safe working conditions along with taking care of basic needs.

Trade unions estimate around a million migrant workers in Gujarat. Vipul Mittra, additional chief secretary in Gujarat’s labour & employment department, said that the state planning to send them back home in a phased manner and has lined up two special trains, one that will go to Uttar Pradesh from Ahmedabad and the second will depart for Odisha from Surat.

Starting Friday, the Indian Railways has been running special train services to transport migrant workers, based on requests from states. Some states are also deploying buses to bring back workers stranded at relief camps.

And migrant workers are in no mood to stay back even if they see prospects of work resuming. Over 40 days of agony and hardship have left them with just one desire: To go home. 
The desperation to return is palpable. On Saturday, police in Indore found 18 people travelling in a concrete mixer truck. They were travelling from Maharashtra to Lucknow.

In the national capital, where about 5,000 migrant workers are residing at a camp in Karol Bagh, working for realty firm Unity Group, contractors have been calling up to check whether they want to return home or resume work.

“Most of us have told our contractor that we want to go back home. The problem is that even if work resumes, from let’s say Tuesday, we do not know if our construction site comes within the containment zone and work comes to a halt again. We do not want to live in this atmosphere of uncertainty,” Anwar, a construction worker, who belongs to Katihar district in Bihar, said.

Another worry for labourers is that the number of workers at sites will be limited. According to the latest government guidelines, factories and establishments will have to resume with 33 per cent of workforce. “Not everyone will get work,” Anwar added.

The labour contractor has noted the Aadhaar numbers and contact details of all the workers and Anwar is hopeful he will be able to go back home.

Industry bodies reckon that at a time when there is a shortage of workers to run units, reverse migration will impede the pace of economic activity. Yet, states don’t have much latitude as many workers are itching to return.

Ramesh Mohapatra, president at Utkal Chamber of Commerce & Industry (UCCI) said, “The host states of migrant workers are constrained as they have to provide accommodation and food. Moreover, many non-resident labourers are willing to go back to their native regions,” he said, adding that this had put industries in a quandary as they look to restart production.

State governments, meanwhile, have taken steps to ensure migrants get the chance to return.

For instance, the Odisha government started a first-of-its-kind portal for registering migrant workers and has received 500,000 requests so far. Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik initiated a dialogue with his counterparts in Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh to bring back workers from those states.

Other states, however, are looking at the prospect of further shortage of labour. The construction industry in Tamil Nadu has various projects pending and is on a strict deadline as works have to be completed before the monsoon arrives in the first week of June.

Sethunath M, chief executive officer at Confederation of Real Estate Developers Association of India (CREDAI), Kerala, said the exodus of migrants will impact construction.

Similarly, in Telangana the Centre’s decision to run shramik trains has opened the flood gates for reverse migration. Till Friday, R Srinivas of Vasavi Constructions, who had a couple of projects in Hyderabad was hopeful of starting work once the lockdown is lifted.

The migrant workers he engaged had decided to stay put as he took care of them. However, things changed overnight as news of the shramik trains spread like wild fire among migrant workers. “All of them have decided to go home now,” Srinivas said.

“Even God cannot stop them from going home as they faced so much hardship, pain and suffering apart from loss of wages over the past 40 days,” said Kotam Raju, general secretary of Telangana Building Construction Workers Union

Fresh problems

For those migrants who returned home there are fresh problems that they have to cope with. According to the new guidelines, people who have completed inter-state travel through public transport have to stay under a mandatory quarantine of 14 days.

However, workers who completed the mandatory quarantine period in some states are unable to find work locally because of lack of skills and they do not want to return to cities.

“Many tea gardens have opened and people are working in shifts. However, migrant workers are unable to find any employment in these gardens. Hence, they are totally dependent on external aid,” P Nita, a non-governmental organisation worker dealing with migrant workers in north Bengal, said.

(With inputs from TE Narasimhan in Chennai, and B Dasrath Reddy in Hyderabad)

Business Standard is now on Telegram.
For insightful reports and views on business, markets, politics and other issues, subscribe to our official Telegram channel