Government’s helplines for us found wanting, say migrant workers
A 35-year-old migrant worker from Uttar Pradesh, who identified herself as Khatoon, worked at an automobile factory in Gurugram and earned ₹10,000 monthly until she lost her job when the lockdown to check the second Covid-19 wave was imposed in April. Khatoon said she was paid just half of her salary for the last month of her work and even found it difficult to feed her children. An NGO helped her with some immediate ration and asked her to call Haryana’s assistant labour commissioner Jaideep Yadav to seek help to get her salary. Yadav’s number is listed among those of 100 central labour commissioners tasked to address migrant distress in 20 states.
Khatoon said when she called up Yadav for help, instead of listening to her, he started questioning her how she managed to get his number. She added after repeated requests for help, Yadav asked her to WhatsApp him the details. Khatoon, a single mother, does not have a smartphone, and gave up and never called back Yadav, who was unavailable for comments. Many migrant workers across India said they were not even aware of such helplines.
Anindita Adhikari of the Stranded Workers Action Network (Swan), a volunteer group working for migrant workers, said they contacted 80 labour commissioners in 20 states and found none of these helplines was able to offer any basic support. “These are just an eyewash,’ Adhikari said.
Swan, which said it has been supporting around 45,000 workers by providing them ration and financial assistance, said that when they called on these helplines, the responses varied. Most of the officials answered the calls but many were not even aware that their numbers were listed as helplines for workers. A commissioner wondered how Swan got him number while another refused to take calls again.
Prakash Kumar Mishra, a migrant worker from Bihar, said the tile manufacturing firm in Bengaluru he worked for was closed when the lockdown was imposed, and the owner left the city without paying them their salaries. “It was after we threatened that we will lodge a complaint with the labour commission that we got our salaries,” said Mishra. He said he called on a helpline number for ration help but was told there was no such provision. When Mishra told the officer in charge his family was starving, he was told to look for free food being distributed.
The government has said it helped tens of thousands of workers via these helplines last year and that this year the workers can call on them for support related to ration, non-payment of wages, basic financial assistance, protection from eviction by landlords and travel support.
Most officials in charge of these helplines told Swan they cannot do much for private-sector workers even as Union labour secretary Apurva Chandra has said the designated officials would be available for any kind of help.
Many officials have been asking for complaints to be submitted in writing even as most workers are unlettered. According to Swan, some have even asked for complaints via emails.
A labour ministry spokesman said help was being provided but did not have the details about the number of requests resolved so far. He added the data will be provided later.
Adhikari filed an application under the Right to Information Act on May 8 seeking details of state-wise requests received and resolved by these helplines. There has been no response from the labour ministry yet. Swan on May 7 wrote a letter to the central labour commissioner DPS Negi and seven state labour commissioners highlighting specific cases for help. “Neither did the Centre nor did any other state give any response,” Adhikari said.
Negi said they have been holding weekly meetings to monitor the redressal of the complaints even as the number of people calling on helplines is very few as compared to last year. The government last year said over 20,00,00 workers were helped last year via these helplines. Negi said that not more than 4,500 complaints have been resolved this year.
“The complaints mostly have been about unpaid wages and the reason for such a smaller number of redressals is that there has been no mass migration like last year. Employers generally withhold wages when workers leave their places of work. This was not the case this year,” Negi said. He added that the labour ministry has directed all the industries to convince their workers to stay in states where they work and pay them wages as well. “Since there is no national lockdown and the state lockdowns as well have exempted the construction activities, where most these migrant workers are employed, this has caused a decrease in migration.”
Negi said if anyone wants to travel back home, there are special trains. “In our review meetings, we have senior officials from the railway ministry as well who have been ensuring all the help to those workers who want to get back home.” Negi said the state governments were responsible for providing ration to workers. He added the control rooms were not empowered to direct ration support nor income support. “India is a federal country and most of these powers lie with the states. Whatever complaints we get out of our domain, we forward them to states.”