Mumbai: “It is a horrible thing to be a daily wage labourer in such times, but even worse is to be a Muslim labourer from (West) Bengal,” says 30-year-old Ershad Hossain, a worker at a local garment shop in Wadala’s National Market.
On April 11, Hossain had walked over three kilometres from the National Market to the Sewri Bus depot and waited for nearly four hours in a queue hoping to procure some food for himself and 25 others from Murshidabad stuck with him at a local garment workshop.
The queue was too long and the food too little. After the four-hour-long wait under the scorching sun, Hossain had to return empty-handed. Hossain and his co-workers went without any food that day. The next day, on Sunday, Hossain went with two more of his co-workers and queued up much earlier. They managed to get dal and rice that afternoon. That was their first and the last meal of the day.
This erratic availability of food has become a regular feature in the lives of Hossain and around 800-1,000 more Muslim labourers from West Bengal who have been surviving at the mercy of local NGOs and some good samaritans. This help, Hossain says, has been sparsely available and they have deprived of food on most days to the point of starvation.
These workers, who are all Muslim, belong to different districts in West Bengal. Many migrated to Mumbai over a decade ago and have been working at different garments units for a meagre payment of Rs 350-500 for over 12-14 hours of work. Labourers who spoke to The Wire said since they spoke Bengali and belonged to the Muslim community, they were always looked at with suspicion and had become easy targets of the local political and police ire.
Mosibur Shaikh said that each time the labourers lined up for food, they were told that the food was not for them. “The food is clearly organised for those in need but we are not counted in them. We are driven away after being told that we are “outsiders”. When one of us argued and demanded that food be made available to all, someone in the crowd called us Bangladeshis. We retreated immediately,” said Mosibur and claimed that the police too had been particularly harsh and had caned people who had queued up for food.
Abdul Shaikh, a young labourer from Birbhum in West Bengal said that it was not the hunger that had been bothering him as much but the humiliation that he and his co-workers were made to endure. “Hum kamaate the aur hum khaate they, kissi ke saamne haath nahi failaaya kabhi. Lekin aaj who bhi karna padh raha hai (We earned and we ate, we never had to beg before anyone. But today we have to do that too),” Shaikh said.
Since the countrywide lockdown was announced on March 21, the workers here have not been paid. “For a few days, our employers gave us some pocket money and, on some days, arranged for a one-time meal, but that too has stopped. We have absolutely no money left with us,” says Tahir Shaikh.
Sewri and Wadala regions of the city house several small garment units. Each unit employees anywhere between ten to 30 workers, who are involved in the work of segregating, cutting, stitching, and packaging. These are small outlets and the clothes processed here are sold in local markets. Although the employers make a decent profit, the employers have never taken responsibility for their workers’ labour rights.
These workers get daily wages and their payment is dependent on the work they manage on a daily basis. Since there has been no work since the lockdown, the employers say they are not liable to pay them. “They said they can only allow us to live here,” Tahir said. “Baaki tum dekhlo (Rest you manage),” Tahir said, quoting his employer.
The plight of migrant workers across the country has been evident as several hundred workers remain stuck in different parts of the state and the nation. While the Maharashtra state government has made shelter homes and food available in some areas, in most areas, NGOs and other self- help groups have stepped up and extended help.
The Public Distribution System hasn’t taken the predicament of migrant workers into account on the grounds that they are not locals. Tahir said he had, along with several other workers, approached the local political leaders and asked that food grains be organised for them. “We aren’t asking for much. Just basic rice and dal to survive this period. But even that hasn’t been made available,” he said.
The lockdown has not only impacted workers stuck in the city but also their families back home. Ershad said that his family of six is dependent on the money he sends home every month. “My children are very young and my wife takes care of them alone. I managed to borrow some money and sent it to them last month. They have been living a hand-to-mouth existence,” he said.
The elected representatives of the region have not extended any support to the workers either. Kalidas Kolambkar, the MLA of Wadala constituency and a senior BJP leader said that his resources had been stretched and that he had been finding it difficult to reach out to people in the region. “This region has just too many labourers and daily wage workers. Besides that, there are several other poor families that need our help. We have reached out to nearly 5,000 persons and each day we have been getting more and more demands,” Kolambkar said.