“The person in charge told us to stay put, saying we would get our full pay, and that the company would restart work. He said we would get a message when work restarted but did not say when that would be. He just held us back.”
This is what Ranjeet, who was working for an export company in Khandsa (Gurugram) before the lockdown, told me in the course of a conversation on May 8. He had not received his full wages for the month of March until then.
Ranjeet, like most migrant workers, moved to the city to earn a livelihood and support his family in Bihar. Although he was keen to go home, the promise of being paid was what had held him back.
However, by the time Ranjeet received the much-awaited message from his employer, on May 16, about the company restarting, he was on his way to Bihar, cooped up in a truck.
My experience of working as a volunteer for the Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN) as part of its Delhi-Haryana team has put me in touch with hundreds of such migrants working in India’s National Capital Region (NCR). Since March 27, our team has received calls from over 800 groups, consisting of 5000 migrant workers, and daily-wage labourers stranded across Delhi and Haryana.
While the challenges of accessing food and ration have been widely reported in the media, the unilateral lockdown has also exposed the precarious, if not oppressive relationship between migrant workers and their employers. The NCR region prides itself on being one of the fastest-growing industrial and manufacturing hubs in the world, with the national capital ranked sixth, globally, according to the Brookings’ study Global Metro Monitor 2018, yet the plight of the workers building these cities shows a deeply disturbing side to this ‘success’ story.
Of the 4,388 workers from the Delhi-Haryana region who responded to the question on the nature of employment, more than half (62 %) said they were employed in some form of construction or daily-wage work, earning an average of Rs 332 a day. These workers were employed for loading and unloading goods, transport, masonry work and making garments, bags and leather products in factories and export companies. Most of these companies have not paid their workers their full wages even for the month of March.
Their situation is further complicated by the fact that due to the sub-contractor system, many workers did not know the names of the companies they were working for. They were only acquainted with the names of the thekedaars, or contractors, who had either denied help or simply stopped responding to the workers’ calls of distress. With their only thread of connection broken, these migrant workers and daily wage labourers have found themselves in a fix.
We have received the largest number of distress calls from industrial clusters like Narela and Mangolpuri in Delhi and Khandsa, IMT Manesar and Sarhaul in Gurugram. Of the companies that workers were able to name as having made no payments or partial payments, some prominent ones stand out. These include Orient Craft Ltd., Jet Group, Chintels India Ltd. and Maruti Suzuki, which has been involved in various CSR efforts in Haryana and has also contributed to the PM-CARES fund.
As of May 14, about 78 % of the 3,440 workers from Delhi and Haryana who responded to the question about payment said they had not been paid during the lockdown. About 84% of them were working in Delhi; 79% were in Gurgaon and 74% in Faridabad. In Ghaziabad, this percentage is comparatively lower at 60%. The numbers are an eyeopener.
In some cases, workers were stranded at construction sites termed ‘labour camps’ as those stranded in one of the industrial areas of Rai, in Sonipat, term it. These ‘labour camps’ had 50-150 people, including women and children, living in makeshift jhuggis, without any access to food or basic facilities.
While some of these workers were able to call contractors and put some pressure on them for rations and cash, the worst hit were the dihari mazdoors, or daily wagers. Prior to the lockdown, they would go to the labour chowks every day in search of work such as loading and unloading of trucks, plaster and masonry work and so on. Even as the lockdown eases, daily wage workers have no one to hold accountable or even reach out to for unpaid wages.
Budhan Kumar, a daily wage worker in the Sagarpur region of Delhi, used to earn around Rs 300-500 daily, depending on the kind of work available. Speaking about the uncertainty of work, he said, “Hum toh berozgar aadmi hai. Roz chowk pe jaana padta hai. Waha par agar theke ke hisab se kaam mila, toh kar lete hai. (Since I don’t have any regular work, I have to go to the chowk daily. If I happen to get work on a contractual basis, then I take it up).”
The sudden lockdown, imposed with only a four-hour notice, left him with no means of earning, nor the chance to go back to his village in Jharkhand. He stayed on in the ‘labour camp’.
In Haryana, although 34,375 industries had resumed work as of May 11, some migrant workers from the region have been telling us that their companies have been selective about calling workers back. For many indirectly dependent on factories, earning daily wages of Rs 300-400 by working in ancillary units, work is yet to start.
Munna, one such daily wage worker who used to work around the Hero Honda factory, another major cluster in Manesar, said, “Abhi toh kaam sirf bade logon ke liye khula hai. Hum toh factory ke baahar waale mazdoor hai. (Work has started only for the senior people. We are outside labourers).”
In some cases, workers who have gone back to work, have been forced to work overtime without any additional payment. Niranjan, working in Lumax Industries Ltd. in Gurugram, who was only partially paid for the month of March, said that workers like him are now expected to work overtime, without payments. When asked if he has taken it up with anyone in authority, he said, “Hum kahan kis ko bole? Woh thekedaar hame darata, dhamkata hai. Woh toh local aadmi hai, hum bahar ke hai. (Where do we go, whom do we tell? The contractor threatens us. He is a local, whereas we are migrants).”
Adding to the precarity, some states are planning to suspend labour laws at the behest of the industries. Haryana had issued a similar notification, indicating relaxation of certain provisions and increased working hours. For migrant workers like Niranjan, who find it difficult to seek help against the coercive local thekedaars, such moves by the government, not only adds to their distress but strips them of their right to dignified, decent and fair work.
Manju Devi, who sews garments for an export company, was relieved when she heard the news that her company was restarting work. However, her relief was short-lived. She says, “Hume thekedaar ne kaha ki ladies ko pass nahi denge, sirf gents ko hi wapis bulaenge. (The contractor told us that only men would be called back to work).”
This selective employment, as industries are slowly reopening, only reveals the even greater vulnerability that women migrants will have to face even as the lockdown eases. Manju Devi’s husband is disabled and she has five children to provide for. Apart from refusing to take her back, her company has also failed to give her the payment due to her. With no source of income, she has been forced to survive by borrowing food and ration from local shops, which has pushed her into a vicious cycle of indebtedness.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the deplorable condition of the informal labour force in Indian cities. At the same time, it has repeatedly signalled that food and cash are not exclusive to each other. Although the package announced by finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman on May 14 for migrant relief has importance in the long term, unfortunately, it came too late and didn’t provide any immediate relief.
Not only that, the government, in guidelines issued on May 17, withdrew the March 29 order that the Ministry of Home Affairs had passed, directing all employers to make full payment of wages to their workers as long as they remained under lockdown. This means the employers have been released from any obligation to pay their workers full wages for the lockdown period or even the month of March.
What the thousands of stranded workers require is the payment of full wages, along with an emergency compensation of at least Rs 7,000 per worker (roughly one-third of the monthly minimum living wages of Rs 18,000 as per the 7th Pay Commission) for the period of three months, assuring the protection of their right to live a dignified life.
Responding to the distress calls for the past 50 odd days has also revealed a deep distrust towards the employers among the workers and daily-wage labourers, who were left without the most basic provisions to survive the long period of the lockdown. This distrust, even if long-standing, runs even deeper now.
This sense of betrayal was distinctly felt when on May 17, when I asked Sanjeev Kumar, a construction worker from Bihar who was forced to start his journey of 1,137 km on foot due to the lack of immediate relief, whether he would return after the lockdown. He immediately replied, “Nahi, nahi, wapas nahi jayenge wahan. (No way. I will not go back there).”
Navmee Goregaonkar is a student at St Xavier’s College, in Mumbai, and a volunteer with the Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN). This article was written with the help of inputs from Anindita Adhikari and data support from Nishant Panicker. She can be reached at email@example.com.