Migrant workers are being treated poorly. Address their concerns, now
When the coronavirus threat is behind us and we look back at this extraordinary moment in history, we will be shamed by one thing above all: How we treated the poorest of our citizens.
For the past 31 days, I have had the chance to travel and report extensively across north India and, everywhere, it’s the same inconvenient truth. Hundreds of thousands of migrant workers, displaced both physically and emotionally, are living in abject penury and on the brink of starvation.
This week, I responded to an SOS video message by one such worker from Kolkata. I was able to trace him to a construction site in east Delhi. When my team and I arrived at the location, we found the workers cordoned-off under lock and key behind a giant tin sheet. Scrawled across a dusty blackboard with chalk were instructions for the hours that they could be “let out”. It was nothing less than bonded labour or slavery.
Inside, five men to a room the size of a closet, were more than 200 workers, some of them with small children, in a compound full of cement and stones. They told us that they had been handed ~100 each and a few kilos of dry rations when the lockdown was first announced on March 24. Since then, they had received no wages. “If something happens to us here, if we fall ill, from coronavirus or any other disease, who will look after us?” asked Fazulu. “Send us home.”
For the interview, the security guards barricaded the only exit point to the compound, threatened to take away what we had filmed and kept our three-member crew, two women among them, locked in for close to 40 minutes. Of course, we fought our way out, but as I left, I could only wonder, if this could happen to us with all our privilege, imagine what the workers go through on a daily basis.
The argument is not against the lockdown; everyone accepts its inevitability, even if there are varying views on whether it needs to be applied in a one-size-fits-all fashion. But if Lockdown 1 forgot to factor in what would happen to 45 million migrant workers, Lockdown 2 does not seem to have learnt any significant lessons from the error.
In this past week, we have seen migrant labourers, in the thousands, come out on the streets. This could be because of the fake news trigger that trains are ready to take them home, as we saw in Mumbai, or a spontaneous eruption of anger and despair, as we saw in Surat.
In the Sitapura industrial area of Jaipur, workers whom we have rendered invisible, power the clothes, gems and jewellery that our class likes purchasing on weekend jaunts to Rajasthan. These men and women, most of them from Bihar, tell us, forget wages, their employers have not even bothered with a cursory phone call to check on their well-being. Like migrant labourers elsewhere, they have neither a vote in the state they work in, nor a ration card. And like elsewhere, there is a significant gap between the slew of welfare schemes announced and what happens on the ground.
Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot told me that he supported one-time special trains, after screening them, to take migrant workers back home. “We have to understand their emotion. They are scared, they are worried, they need a sense of security.” He also warned of the practical economic consequences if this issue is not addressed. “Right now, they are half here and half there. Factories cannot reopen like this.”
How is it that we ran special chartered flights for middle- and-upper-middle class Indians from across the world, but we forgot to organise buses for our poor? Why is it that we get so agitated when it comes to being separated from our parents and children, even if they are economically secure; but we feel disdain or indifference towards hundreds of thousands of Indians, without our monetary cushion, expressing the same sentiment?
I’m haunted by the words of Mukesh Nirvasit who supports workers from the informal sector. “We should stop treating migrant workers as if they are beggars and our response is charity. They have built our factories, our economy, our country.”
If we can’t look after them, let them go home.