Migrant labourers queue up to board a special train to Bihar from Chennai railway station earlier in May. (File photo)
Migrant labourers queue up to board a special train to Bihar from Chennai railway station earlier in May. (File photo)

As states begin unlocking, returning migrants struggle to find work

Most migrant workers complain that factories aren’t allowing new people in. They also lack any support in places they go to, in search of work
By Umar Sofi
UPDATED ON JUN 07, 2021 03:28 PM IST

Dinesh Rathore from Muzaffarpur in Bihar returned to Delhi nearly after two and a half months of staying in his native village during the lockdown in the national capital amid the rising Covid cases in April.

“I am the sole bread earner of my family. There are younger brothers and parents back at home to feed. All my savings, from my daily wages of 300 wages, were over during this year’s lockdown,” says Rathore.

As lockdown restrictions have started easing in many migrant worker receiving states such as Goa, Mumbai, Delhi, workers have begun returning in search of work.

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“Our village has hundreds of people who come to Delhi for work. We heard that work here would resume by May-end so I returned with a brother of mine, hoping to find him work too. But there is really no work here. For 10 days, we have been approaching different factories to give us work. I am skilled at iron smithing and welding work as well, but they are not allowing strangers to enter the factories,” he says, adding that the siblings are left with very little ration.

Another migrant labourer, Pavan Sahni, who belongs to Poornia in Bihar, returned to Neemrana in Rajasthan where he worked earlier, but he says not much has changed. With a wife and three kids to support, Sahni earlier sold ice-creams that a local factory gave him along with a refrigerated cart. He got paid 2 rupees per piece sold. “I used to earn over 400 a day but people are now wary of buying food from small-time vendors like me and the police also don’t allow us to station the cart in streets, leave alone major roads,” he says.

“There is a place called Labour Chowk here where migrant workers assemble in the morning and people looking for labourers hire them for 300 a day. My friend and I got work only twice,” he says

Sahni adds there has been a rush of labourers to the chowk as the news [of police allowing labourers to wait for work] spread. “I am jobless again. These 600 rupees are all that I have earned since I came back for work. I could not even earn enough to pay for the rent of the room where my family stays,” he says.

Gulzar Ahmad from Jharkhand had also returned home from Goa as the state imposed a lockdown in April. Most of the labourers in his village worked in Goa as labourers and housekeeping staff in hotels but now, they are choosing to go to other states, not Goa.

“Since the lockdown, not many tourists are going there and most of the hotels are closed. Some of my friends left for Hyderabad yesterday as someone assured them on the phone that he needed workers. They are not sure about it but it is better to search than stay idle or even go to Goa where everything is shut,” he said.

He added that the weather in states such as Karnataka, Goa, and Kerala is also not conducive, post-Cyclone Yaas.“There has been a severe cyclone recently and that has impacted work availability as well,” he says.

Gayatri Sahgal from Stranded worker action network (SWAN), a volunteer group working for migrant workers, says that the government has been negligent and has been giving false assurances of support to them.

HT has already reported on the defunct government helplines which include contact numbers of 100 labour commissioners meant to help these workers with ration, non-payment of wages, basic financial assistance, protection from eviction by landlords and travel support for workers to get back home. Some of these commissioners tasked for this did not even know that their numbers were listed as helplines.

Sahgal says unlock has not been planned well, adding that migrant workers trying to get back to work need some basic financial assistance to survive till they find work .

She adds that while Delhi is lending ration of 4 kgs of wheat and 1 kg rice, migrant workers may not have support in places they wish to go for work. “The extension of ration to non-PDS card holders should be done on a war footing. While the government might claim stock assessment issues as migrant workers are not a static population in any one state, there are some well researched surveys of this patterned migration which could give them an average number of labourers in each state,” she says.

“We have better models of reducing migrant distress, like Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), available with us. Their extended implementation is needed, especially when the urban economy has suffered so much,” she says adding the government should also start projects in urban localities which could cater to the welfare of such workers. MGNREGA provides at least 100 days of daily wage employment every year to unemployed people for those adults who volunteer to do unskilled manual work, according to its official website.

A labour ministry spokesperson admitted to HT that there have been complaints from workers who are unable to find work despite easing of lockdown curbs and that most factories are refusing to let them in, but the government was yet to chalk out any plan to address the issue.

There also wasn’t a response from Central Labour Commissioner DPS Negi on how the government was planning to re-integrate these workers.

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