Published: 01st May 2020
Desperate, hungry and broke: Why migrant workers stuck in India's cities desperately want out
The workers have not been paid wages and owe their landlords money too, there employers on the other hand have disappeared
We are tired and emotionally drained. If we are to stay hungry, we prefer to do so at home, with our family and children, said Vijendra Mandal, a migrant worker from the Giridih district of Jharkhand who is stuck here in Chennai. Mandal is one of the lakhs of migrant workers stuck in Tamil Nadu because of the lockdown and one of the 14,000 workers that the Chennai Citizens COVID Fund for Migrant Labour volunteers have been interacting with over the last one month.
Mere hours before the Ministry of Home Affairs agreed to begin operating trains to return migrant labourers to their hometowns in a cautious manner, many of their stories were rife with agony. The fund has been working to ensure basic food and shelter for the workers and is also helping present the issues faced by them to the Tamil Nadu government.
From the survey that the Fund has conducted, it has been found that at least 63 per cent of the workers had not received their wages for the work they did before the lockdown began. “A survey of 79 workers drawn from the fund’s database of more than 800 cases representing 14,000 workers found that 38 percent of the workers were concerned as they had unsettled dues for room rent and had no money to pay their landlords,” the members of the Fund said.
The survey also found that 95 per cent of migrant workers said that they want to return to their homes at the earliest. Only about 25 per cent said they could consider staying back if jobs are available in the city but the rest want to go home even if jobs are made available to them. “When asked if they would like to return to Tamil Nadu after the crisis blows over, 86 per cent said they would because opportunities are not available in their home states. 'Why would we come so far leaving our children if our state government made opportunities available at home?' Mandal said to us,” the volunteers said.
While appreciating the Tamil Nadu government for appointing a nodal officer to coordinate inter-state travel for migrant workers they pointed out that the government must also resolve critical pending issues of unpaid wages and overdue rent for workers' accommodations.
A worker from Jharkhand working in a property development firm said that he had not received his salary for two months, “I don’t even have a single paisa to go back home. I’m struggling for food and water, and I am going around asking people for help and money. And the manager has not even called once to ask how we are managing or where we even are. Even if the lockdown ends, I don’t have a single rupee to find a way home,” he said.
Another worker, Lalu Choudhary also said his parents back home were worried and wanted him to come back but he has not received his salary and has no way to pay for anything. “The government can at least give us Rs 1,000, so that we can somehow go home. We will maintain social distancing and adjust. But staying here is affecting our mental health,” he explained.
A native of Vellore, Manikandan has had his fair share of horror during the lockdown too. A driver by profession, he ventured out to help the thousands of families stranded in Vellore who had come to the city to seek medical treatment at the Christian Medical College. Despite seeking permission from the collector to take the stranded patients home, Manikandan faced challenges throughout the route. “It was hell. We got pulled over and we're asked to return at several places. The cops would say it didn’t matter that I had the Collector’s permission. Some would just harass us. After a point the customers themselves started to blackmail me and threaten not to pay me. We had no way to buy food or water, no hotels and no money,” he narrated.
Shreedhar, a social worker who runs an NGO for Tamil migrant workers in Mumbai also said that several workers from TN are wanting to return home. “Somewhere we heard that the government is giving them permission to go but are asking them to find their own way. Most don’t have any money, how would they return?” he questioned.
Another volunteer with the fund also raised a concern of many migrant workers who are worried they might be required to submit a certificate stating that they don’t have disease when they cross borders. “They want to know if there are any test centres close by and how they can avail the test. They don’t want to crowd at their destination too and want to know how they can all find their way home in a phased out manner. With employers and contractors missing, the workers have no way of getting any information,” he said. The workers who are working in rural areas are also asking if they have to move to the cities to avail the transportation arrangements and if there are relief centres set up so they can reside there for now.
The activists all agreed that the government cannot consider who is registered and who isn’t at this point, and that could be something they mandate later but not at this point when things are in such a dire condition.
The fund has placed the following requests to the Tamil Nadu government on behalf of the migrant workers:
- Appoint district level nodal officers and set up multilingual helplines to respond to queries pouring in from workers eager to return to their homes.
- Expand inter-state movement to include movement by special trains, in addition to buses as provided for in the MHA order.
- Ensure that worker groups are allowed to travel together, and that all reasonable efforts are taken to prevent the separation of workers from their peer group and families in the course of inter-state movement. Social distancing, screening and basic sanitisation measures must be used for workers' benefit in a discerning manner that does not compromise their rights, liberties and safety.
- As a state that has immensely relied on the labour of migrant workers, the TN Government must extend its duty of care toward migrant workers by ensuring that they reach their chosen destinations free of cost.
- The Government of Tamil Nadu must ensure that no worker is coerced or forced to opt for inter-state movement against his/her will.
- Prior to arranging for Inter-state movement for those who apply for the same, TN Government must ascertain compliance from concerned employers with regard to unpaid wages. TN Government must work together with receiving State Governments and defray outstanding dues towards rent, essential commodities and life-saving medical expenses.
- Just as the Tamil Nadu Government has launched an exclusive website to enable the return of Tamilians stranded overseas, a similar website must be launched immediately for the return of Tamil migrant workers who are in distress in other states.