Published: 30th October 2019
With 77% from lower castes, NIRDPR study exposes the oppressive lives of migrant labourers in TN, UP
The National Institute of Rural Development and Panchayati Raj (NIRDPR) recently conducted a study on interstate migrant workers in Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh
There are over 40 million migrants workers in India and their biggest employer is the construction sector. Even if as a society we look down at manual labour, these workers continue to remain the backbone of the country and its infrastructure. They are also the same workers who are exploited on a day to day basis. According to a recent study, 77 percent of the labourers are from OBC, SC categories, the women are not even paid a living wage and the workers have no protection whatsoever — physically or financially.
The National Institute of Rural Development and Panchayati Raj (NIRDPR) recently conducted a study on interstate migrant workers in Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh and the picture it paints is certainly grim. Dr R Chinnadurai and Dr R Aruna Jayamani have worked together on the paper and have highlighted the unsafe working conditions and human rights violations that are rampant in places like stone quarries.
"Breaking stones is one of the toughest jobs. But everybody needs stones, for roads, railways, buildings...they are the backbone of the country. Yet, the government has done little to protect the workers' rights," Chinnadurai, an assistant professor at the Centre for Decentralised Planning, NIRDPR, said. "Since it is such heavy back-breaking work, not everyone will opt to do it, so the majority of those who choose to do it are from socially backward communities. So people who have no other sources of livelihood and no assets in their place of origin, they choose to move to other states and take up this work."
R Chinnadurai and R Aruna Jayamani
According to the study, 77.3 percent of the people engaged in quarry work are from backward castes and scheduled castes. Chinnadurai says that this type of work falls under the hazardous work category and yet workers either don't have access to protective gear or they don't realise the importance of wearing it. "As per the law, the workers have to be wearing the protective gear whenever they are present on the site. Sometimes, they are not provided with this gear but sometimes they don't wear it either because it's heavy and uncomfortable and affects their work. But that isn't their fault," he said. The professor said the onus is on the labour manager to ensure that the workers were educated about the importance of the protective gear and ensure that they wear it a all times.
Boom: Where do you run to?
Another thing that the researchers noticed was that most stone quarries don't have shelters. A shelter is supposed to be set at the sites and the workers are supposed to stand under them during the blasting process. "You can't run away from a blast like that, people lose a leg sometimes or have other grievous injuries. Accidents happen all the time but no precaution is taken," he adds. In their places of residence too, Chinnadurai says the workers lack even basic facilities. The migrant labourers become prone to various respiratory diseases such as tuberculosis, bronchitis and asthma. Women and children suffer from malaria and anaemia due to lack of nutritious food
Long term binding contracts through loans and wage advances is a widely prevalent labour hiring practice in the granite quarrying industry in both Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh. The men earn depending on the quantum of work they do and how much time they spend. "So for like a truckload of stones, maybe they'll get about 700 rupees," Chinnadurai said. The women, on the other hand, are called 'casual workers' and are not even paid the living wage. The professor said that they do work like assembling the stone, breaking smaller stones, "The women want to engage in the work as well but they cannot break stones as big as the men break so they earn about Rs 150-200 rupees for 9-5 jobs," he said. Sometimes, younger women who are usually stronger and can do more work, earn a bit more.
However, because the men are paid according to the 'piece-rate' they sometimes force themselves to take up more work than physically possible. This causes them various physical health issues, they also live a shorter life and lose their strength, Chinnadurai explained. "Their work should be regulated. Labour officers should sensitise them on the negative effects that so much overworking can do to their bodies," he added.
Growing up in the quarries
The ones to suffer the most in these conditions though are the children of these workers. "The children grow up in these quarries. So they grow up playing with these stones and just like that they get tied down to the profession generation after generation," Chinnadurai says. The migrant families can't leave their children back at home either because they don't have any facilities there or they have no one to look after them there. So every year the children move along with their parents, this means that they never go to school or even have a slight chance at getting an education because there are no facilities at their 'place of destination' (place of work) either.
"In Guntur in Andhra Pradesh, some NGOs run mobile schools for these children because they can't go to the regular school. If they don't start early, then they find no escape from this sort of work and it becomes hereditary," the professor said. So instead, Chinnadurai suggests that the government set up boarding schools for the children, "Even if 10 out of a 200 get educated, there is some promise of a good future.
Of alienation and sexual abuse
Speaking about the study, Dr R Aruna Jayamani, Assistant Professor, Centre for Planning Monitoring and Evaluation, NIRDPR, said, “Majority of the workers feel they are disintegrated from their society and they are distant from their relatives and feeling insecurity due to lack of people to share their feelings. It is essential to create educational access to their children either in the workplaces or arrangement of boarding and accommodation in the form of priority in admission to the boarding schools nearer to the place of work.”
One other finding that the study has made is that sexual abuse is also widely prevalent in these spaces. Women migrant workers are often sexually abused by contractors and even locals in the area. "They cannot even complain because they are the very people who employ them. They are threatened and blackmailed too, so they just put up with the abuse," he told us.
No unions for migrant workers
According to the professor, there are many laws that already exist for the protection of the workers' needs and rights. However, there seem to be no labour unions for migrant labourers since they are not in their home state. "They are the mercy of the contractors and the owners of the quarries. The sector is important to our economy yet we do little to implement the provisions of the Migration Act. Even if 50 percent of that Act is implemented, workers can have slightly better living and working conditions," he opined.