Fare deducted from pay of workers who flew back to rejoin work: J’khand report
Ramlal Singh, a migrant worker, took a flight to return to Bengaluru on August 8 after his employer arranged his ticket. He looked forward to re-joining work at a private firm as the Covid-19 pandemic and the lockdown imposed to check its spread had forced Singh to return home in Jharkhand and left him without any source of income. A month later, Singh was shocked to learn that his employer’s generosity came at a price. The employer deducted ₹3,000 from his ₹10,000 salary as airfare reimbursement.
Singh’s case is not isolated. The Jharkhand government’s labour department has prepared a report highlighting the plight of migrant workers like him who faced similar deductions--between ₹3,000 to ₹10,700--from their meagre salaries. HT has reviewed a draft of the report submitted to the Centre’s policy think tank Niti Aayog.
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Employers flying back migrant workers to return to work hit the headlines when economic activity restarted after the easing of the lockdown in the summer of 2020. India’s estimated 100 million migrants were among the hardest hit when the hard lockdown was imposed between last March and June. The lockdown triggered an exodus of hundreds of thousands of migrant workers from cities. A large number of them walked, cycled, and hitchhiked to return to their homes before special trains and buses were arranged for them. As many as 900,000 migrant workers returned to Jharkhand alone between March and July.
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“There are endless stories of neglect, apathy, and exploitation in the destination cities and states,” said Jharkhand chief minister Hemant Soren.
The labour department, which set up a 24-hour helpline, said it has been able to track at least 100 cases where employers made deductions for flying migrants back to their workplaces in Bengaluru, Mumbai and Chennai. “We have taken a serious note of these findings and contemplating how to take action,” said Soren.
Singh said he had no choice but to return to Bengaluru. “I had to work. So, I do not feel so bad that they cut my plane fare,” he said. “I have parents and a young son. So, I was glad to go back. We did ask the contractor if he can find a way of helping us.”
In Singh’s case, his employer partly subsidised his plane fare. But Mohammed Irshad had to repay the full amount--- ₹4,800-- spent on him to return to work at a garment factory in Mumbai.
Irshad said it made sense for him to take the flight as a bus would have cost him ₹5,000 besides additional money for meals en route. “They [employers] have taken what we owed. If we did not work, then we would not have jobs... how would I then have fed my parents.”
Jharkhand’s labour commissioner, Muthu Kumar, said the deductions amounted to a violation of the Payment of Wages Act, 1936. “We will write to all those employers for immediate action. It is inhuman that people were doing this during the lockdown. We see a clear violation of laws.”
Zubair Ansari, another migrant worker from Jharkhand’s Palamu, hoped the government will reimburse their airfares. “Tickets were very expensive in June when I returned.”
Johnson Topno, who worked for a helpline for migrant workers during the pandemic, said the employers have taken advantage of the vulnerabilities and distress of the migrants. “While the government is pursuing this, there is at the same time, a fear of losing one’s job, and that is too risky.”