A raw deal for migrants

Print edition : April 18, 2014

Migrant workers take a break at a construction site in Gurgaon. Photo: MANAN VATSYAYANA/AFP

At a protest in Gurgaon by workers of various auto manufacturing units in and around Gurgaon. Photo: PTI

PERHAPS the most poignant moment in the film Peepli Live—even though the movie is really more about the media than about the socio-economic realities of India—is at the very end, when the hapless protagonist, now a former farmer presumed to be dead and so without an identity, is seen as one of the many faceless workers on one of the innumerable large construction sites that clutter the urban landscape. The story leading up to that particular denouement may be concocted and exaggerated, but the background of many migrant workers in urban India is often no less dramatic, reflecting not just simple differences in wage expectations but extreme exigencies of domestic circumstances and individual survival.

The forces generating the movement of people for work are complex and rarely unidimensional, but it is still the case that a significant part of economic migration is the result of desperation rather than hard-headed economic calculation. And that, in turn, affects the conditions under which workers migrate as well as their lives and their work in the destination.

The significant increase in short-term distress migration of both men and women in the mid-2000s was, therefore, associated with quite appalling conditions, especially for women workers, who typically faced not only low wages and dreadful living conditions but even threats to their physical security. This was somewhat ameliorated from 2006 onwards by the spread of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), even though the rural employment programme has still not been implemented fully in either letter or spirit. Certainly, employers in the construction industry and other activities reliant on migrant labour were heard to be complaining that workers were no longer available at the real wages (often breadline and lower than subsistence) that had become the norm.

In recent years, the rise of real wages and the expansion of the construction industry has led some analysts to argue that migration (even short-term migration) is no longer distress-driven but demand-led, resulting from the rapid economic growth that has led to a proliferation of non-agricultural jobs in urban and peri-urban areas. The implicit corollary is that this is associated with significantly better conditions of migrant workers, as employers are forced by labour market pressures to offer a better deal for workers.

This rather optimistic assessment can be interrogated, of course, and recently several studies have highlighted that the conditions of migrant workers, especially recent and short-term migrants, remain problematic and even pathetic. A new study of migrant workers in Gurgaon district of Haryana (“Exploring rural-urban dynamics: A study of inter-State migrants in Gurgaon”, Society for Labour and Development, March 2014) throws this into sharp relief.

The Gurgaon example

Gurgaon is possibly one of the most iconic representations of the new India, combining in its shiny new exteriors and squalid byways all the possibilities, inequalities and contradictions of emerging India’s recent rapid economic growth. Unlike Faridabad, its sister satellite city in the National Capital Region, Gurgaon emerged—one could even say erupted—in completely unplanned fashion, with civic authorities always several steps behind the private land developers who exploited its locational advantages. The township is now a city in its own right, with between two and three million estimated residents, even without counting the flotsam and jetsam of temporary and unregistered migrants who are essential to its construction and existence. It is home to some of the important automobile manufacturers who have made this an important exporting industry; to software companies; to services both modern and traditional that cater to those employed in these companies; and of course to the land development and construction industry that made it all possible in the first place.

Many of the country’s elite now live in Gurgaon, commuting to the nation’s capital, in a reflection of the fact that the power that used to radiate outwards from the central heart of New Delhi is now finding other more upstart sources. But it is still a Wild West kind of place, bubbling with energy and aggressive assertiveness, only just beginning to be moderated by some norms as settlements begin to take root.

So the conditions of migrant workers in this most dynamic of urban locations must surely be at least a proximate guide to how they are faring elsewhere in the country. This recent study is fascinating because it examines migrant workers in their current location of Gurgaon as well as their earlier conditions and the lives of their families in their place of origin. It covered 200 migrant workers from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand, with the districts of Rural Kanpur, Gorakhpur, Nalanda, Nawada and Hazaribagh being chosen specifically for their predominance as place of origin among the migrant community in Gurgaon.

The surveyed workers included those in the garments and auto parts industries, in construction, in domestic work, and self-employed people in various activities. Four-fifths of the interviewees were male workers, while the females were all either garment workers or domestic workers. The respondents were mainly young, nearly 90 per cent of them between 18 and 40 years old. They also dominantly came from Other Backwards Classes, with a sprinkling of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.

The most striking result of this survey was just how low the wages were for these migrant workers: 70 per cent of them earned between Rs.5,000 and Rs.7,000 a month, and 17 per cent more than Rs.7,000 but less than Rs.10,000. In all their cases, the monthly income of households back home was even lower, which constituted an obvious and important reason for migration. The power relations experienced by them in both work and life generally were skewed heavily against them.

The migrant workers in this survey reported authoritarian management practices, frequent physical or verbal abuse and a climate of intimidation created by hired goons, and in general a sense of the work environment being both unfriendly and unhealthy. Average daily work hours ranged between eight and 12 hours without overtime, and four to six additional hours of overtime. In the auto parts and garments factories, during periods of heavy production, overtime work was made compulsory to fulfil the demand. Nearly three quarters of the surveyed workers worked six days a week, while one-fifth worked all seven days of the week.

Taking more than a week’s leave from work, for whatever reason, could result in dismissal. This was particularly an issue for the women workers, who got absolutely no maternity benefits. Both domestic and garments workers could not claim paid maternity leave as a right. Indeed, the women working in garments factories noted that it was uncomfortable to work in the male-dominated factory floor in the last few months of pregnancy. So it was the typical practice for women workers to leave the job several months before delivery and return after childbirth to search for a fresh job.

None of the respondent workers had secure contracts, and even those who had been in the city a decade or more had changed several jobs, without any provision for job loss compensation. The insecurity of tenure also affected living conditions since rented accommodation became more difficult to access and landlords typically did not agree to certify that the workers were their tenants on a regular basis. This in turn affected other quotidian aspects of urban life such as getting a gas connection, opening a bank account, and so on. One result was that most of the workers buy LPG for cooking at the market price of Rs.100 a kg, which came to Rs.1,450 a cylinder.

In any case, the living quarters of the workers were generally cramped and ranged from modest to appalling. Their places of residence varied from rented room in chawls and multistoreyed buildings to temporary slum dwellings. The rented rooms were typically in buildings that contained anywhere between 30 and 100 rooms. Generally, a 10 x 10 square feet room was occupied by four to six workers. The investigators found that many of the rooms occupied by the migrant workers did not have proper ventilation, full-time water supply and electricity, and proper sewage and drainage systems, and several buildings did not even have all-weather accessible roads. For these rooms, rents had to be paid by the 7th or 10th of every month, with a fee penalty for late payment and likely eviction for repeated non-payment.

Inevitably, sanitation conditions were dreadful as well. In the chawls and rented buildings, toilets were shared across five to eight rooms, with uncertain water supply. Only 2 per cent of the workers described the conditions of their toilets as good, while more than half thought they were bad or very bad. Open and overflowing drains were common sights in the localities where they lived. Unhygienic conditions were likely to be associated with more frequent illnesses, especially of waterborne diseases and pollution-related chest and lung problems. Yet the workers could ill afford the luxury of falling ill because of the loss of their wage incomes and the costs associated with privatised medical care.

Low wages combine with really impoverished living conditions —and all for the necessity of remitting at least some money back home. If this is demand-pull migration, what on earth would the distress-push kind look like? And what sort of destitution and degradation is prevailing in rural areas and the urban hinterland to encourage movement of labour in such dreadful conditions?

Reports like this one, and others that expose the real conditions of migrant workers in India, need to be focussed on much more not only by policymakers but by citizens in general. We cannot hope to build a civilised and just society on the basis of such crass exploitation.